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


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.


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.