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.


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.