Thursday, 20 September 2012

Improving Yields and Destroying the Environment

By Michael Burke

A short but very interesting item was recently broadcast on Radio 4’s Today programme. A recording of the programme can be replayed here where a summary is also available.

The report highlighted a disaster in the production of corn, wheat and soya beans in the US. This was not because of the widespread recent drought, but an additional man-made disaster which may have longer-lasting impact.

In effect, large US farmers have been encouraged to adopt genetically modified strains of the seed varieties for these different crops. The specific form of GM was resistance to extremely powerful weedkiller, which was then used exhaustively.

But giant ragweeds have developed resistance to that weedkiller just as many campaigners had suggested. Now 2,4-D a new chemical will be deployed that last saw widespread use in the rice fields and jungles of South-East Asia as part of Agent Orange. Formerly, it had been used as in Vietnam part of the campaign to destroy foliage and crops. Now, it will be used in the US to destroy all vegetable life including weeds, except for the seeds once more genetically modified to withstand it.

It seems almost incredible, but the response of vast agrichemical companies like Dow and Monsanto is to develop even more highly resistant seed strains. At the same time, at US insistence, consumers are not allowed to know whether they are purchasing goods made of GM products.

This intensification of both the efforts to increase yields at all costs and the hoodwinking and fraud perpetrated on consumers are likely to intensify in the current crisis. The crisis is characterised by a slump in investment. In effect, firms stop investing when they cannot be sure of making a profit. As a result, measures to increase productivity and schemes that amount to reckless fraud or endangerment (of consumers or the environment) are likely to increase in an effort to increase profits.

Marx put it this way, “If the rate of profit falls, on the one hand we see exertions by capital, in that the individual capitalist drives down the individual value of his own particular commodities below their average social value, by using better methods, etc, and thus makes a surplus profit at the given price; on the other hand we have swindling and general promotion of swindling, through desperate attempts in the way of new methods of production, new capital investment and new adventures, to secure some kind of extra profit, which will be independent of the general average and superior to it”.

Mass unemployment and lower pay are key consequences of the current refusal to invest, but so too are the growth in reckless schemes involving swindling and environmental depredation.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Germany's recovery Is faltering

By Michael Burke

Germany is widely regarded as the motor of the European economy. GDP grew by just 0.3% in the 2nd quarter of 2012 and is barely 1% higher than a year ago. The German statistical agency Destasis speak of a continuing export-led recovery. But that is not strictly correct. German exports are rising. But because imports are rising faster, net exports have subtracted from growth.
Table 1 below shows the real change in GDP between 2008 when the recession began and the 2nd quarter of 2012.

Table 1
12 09 16 Germany Table 1

Taken in isolation, Germany’s exports are indeed the single biggest contributor to its growth. But imports have grown at a significantly greater pace – they are up 12.1% over the period, compared to 9.5% for exports. As a result, net exports have subtracted from growth. Both, however, have grown faster than GDP itself, which has risen by 1.7% compared to the peak before the crisis. As a result Germany has become an even more open economy and trade accounts for over 48% of GDP.

The single largest net contributor to Germany’s growth has been household consumption, which more than accounts for the entire rise in GDP. Household consumption has risen by 3.8% since 2008. Increased government spending has also been a significant contributor to growth over the period and has risen even more rapidly – rising by 8.1%. Aside from net exports, investment (GFCF, Gross Fixed Capital Formation) has also been a drag on growth. This is the only component of GDP which is still lower than in 2008 and so is acting as the main brake on recovery.

Trends In Growth

A rise in household consumption is in fact characteristic of all the so-called core countries of the Euro Area. Along with Germany, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France and Luxembourg all have a level of household consumption that is now higher than before the recession, although this trend is by far the most pronounced in Germany. The exception is The Netherlands, where household consumption has fallen.

Turning to the source of this strength in household consumption, Table 2 shows the main categories of GDP alongside the changes in both the Gross Operating Surplus of firms and the Compensation of Employees. Since these latter two are only provided in nominal terms and on a calendar year basis, the entire set of data is presented in the same way to the end of 2011.

Table 2
12 09 16 Germany Table 2

The source of the rise in household spending is readily identifiable. The rise in spending of €98bn is almost exactly equal to the rise in the Compensation of Employees of €97bn. It seems likely that this willingness to consume is underpinned by the rise in government spending as well as the fall in the unemployment rate to 6.8 per cent - which is lower than at the onset of the recession.

Germany has therefore experienced a mild recovery based not on export growth but primarily on rising household consumption assisted by rising government spending. While this is a much stronger performance than either Britain or the crisis-hit countries of the Euro Area it is not sustainable over the medium-term and there are already signs that growth is slowing to a crawl. Trends in unemployment, which had supported consumption, have gone into reverse with unemployment rising for 5 straight months.

German Chancellor Merkel recently took half the Cabinet and a host of business leaders to China in order to cement the growing trade relationships between the two countries. Oddly, the overwhelming clamour from Western economists and commentators is that China’s economy should become more like that of Germany, driven primarily by household consumption rather than investment.

Instead, the current trends in the German economy show that it needs to become more like China, where investment plays the leading role in spurring growth. The alternative is for the German future to look more like the recent past of the crisis economies in the Euro Area where slowdown has been followed by stagnation followed by economic contraction.