Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The FT, hedgehogs and the scale of the crisis

By Michael Burke

In analysis of any issue it is crucial to distinguish between factors that are of primary or decisive importance and those that are secondary or lesser matters. This applies to economic analysis as much as other disciplines. There is a vast amount of economic data which is produced by innumerable public and private agencies internationally, and an almost endless number of ways of configuring the data supplied.

The most important issue facing the British economy is how to end the slump. No other issue, employment, incomes, government finances or anything other question can be resolved without it.

Therefore it is extremely important to analyse the trends and prospects for growth in a sober fashion and to focus on the most decisive factors. It is unhelpful or even misleading to focus primarily on secondary matters.

The recent Bank of England Inflation Report contained an assessment of the trends in growth of the British economy. Chris Giles, the economics editor of the Financial Times has provided a very useful chart showing changes in the Bank’s growth forecasts over time. The chart is shown below.

Chart 1
13 05 29 Anatomy of a recession Chart 1

This is described as a ‘hedgehog’ chart because of the various lines indicating the changes to the Bank forecasts over time. Chris Giles highlights the fact that this is the first time since 2007 that the Bank has produced an improved forecast, which raises projected GDP growth from 0.9% to 1.2% in 2013. This is shown on the chart as the difference between the orange and green spikes on the chart.

In reality, the Bank’s forecasting record is an extremely poor one. The November 2007 forecast (the purple line in the chart) was made just a few months before recession began in the 2nd quarter of 2008. This was the deepest recession since the 1930s. Yet the Bank was not forecasting any contraction in output at all. The various ‘hedgehog’ spikes arise because it has continually forecast a rapid return to growth that did not materialise.

The upward revision to the forecast this year is minimal, comprising just 0.3% of GDP. For many people, and not just supporters of austerity like Chris Giles, there is a hope that this upward revision to forecasts is the beginning of a trend and that there will be a continuous upward revision of forecasts as the outlook improves.

Yet the focus on such a slight revision to the growth outlook seems misplaced, and not just because it could be altered in either direction. Even before the slump the British economy was not growing at a fast pace by international standards. A return to prosperity would imply a rejection of permanently lower growth and a return to the previous trend. Instead the Bank’s forecasts imply a further widening of the gap between the future growth of the economy and its pre-recession trend.

This is the real scale of the economic crisis and the issue which is of primary importance. Currently the gap between the level of output and the economy’s former trend is approximately 16% of GDP.

This gap will continue to widen so that any new government will be faced with a shortfall in output of approximately 20% of GDP. In current prices these are in the region of £250bn to £300bn.

This is a measure of the effects of both recession and austerity. Therefore it is also a measure of the scale of the task facing any new government that wants to end them.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Deepening European Crisis

By Michael Burke

The economies of the European Union and the Euro Area both contracted in the 1st quarter of 2013. The renewed contraction in GDP began in mid-2011 and has now run for 18 months on both cases. But, as Chart 1 below shows, the recovery from the depths of the recession in both cases was short-lived and at no point was the previous peak in activity of the 1st quarter of 2008 recovered. In reality, the European economy has been in a slump which stretches all the way back to the beginning of 2008 and is now entering its sixth consecutive year.

Chart 1
13 05 21 Chart 1

The cause of the crisis remains unaltered. Full data for all the components of GDP in the EU and Euro Area are not yet available. But comprehensive data is published up to the 4th quarter of 2012. No substantial turn in events took place at the beginning of 2013, simply an extension of previous negative trends.

In that period from the 1st quarter of 2008 to the 4th quarter of 2012, GDP in the Euro Area has contracted by €288bn in real terms. In the European Union it has contracted by €310bn. However, if the components of GDP are examined it is clear that the decline in investment more than accounts for the entire fall in GDP in both cases.

Investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) has fallen in the Euro Area over the same period by €362bn and fell by €461bn in the EU. In both cases this is far in excess of the total decline in GDP, and is shown in Chart 2 below.

Chart 2
13 05 19 Chart 2

Since the slump in both the EU and the Euro Area is driven by the fall in investment, the slump itself and all its economic symptoms (unemployment, falling real incomes, strained government finances, and so on) cannot be resolved without increasing the level of investment.

This would be impossible if the mantra that ‘there is no money left’ were true. But it is very far from being true. The aim and purpose of capital in a capitalist economy is the accumulation of capital.
Where that cannot be achieved capital will simply remain idle as cash balances accumulating in banks. In the latest monthly report from the ECB the currency and bank deposits of non-financial firms in the Euro Area banking system are €2,073bn and short-term bills are a further €83bn (p.143). They are considerably more when the EU cash deposits of firms in non-Euro Area are added.
The accumulation of these assets has been more or less equivalent to the slump in investment. From the end of 2007 to December 2012 currency, bank deposits and bills held by non-financial financial firms has increased by €350bn in cash terms. The refusal of firms to invest has led to a rise in their cash holdings.

Credit direction

These are assets which could be directed towards productive investment. Firms refuse to do so because they are cannot be confident about returning sufficient  profit. But the European governments could direct these assets into productive lending at both the national and supranational level. Before the era of financial liberalisation credit direction, which is the central bank or other authority directing the commercial banks’ lending, was widespread in industrialised economies.

It cannot be seriously argued that this would interfere with market’s efficient allocation of resources, not after the crisis of 2008 and 2009. The authorities also have numerous levers to ensure that credit is direct towards productive investment in infrastructure, de-carbonisation, transport, housing, education and so on).

The banks operating in Europe can only do so because their deposits are guaranteed by the state. The state also issues banking licenses. The ECB is effectively a state body and supplies all banks with needed liquidity. The authorities could direct credit by altering capital rules to favour state-guaranteed investments. Many banks are also now effectively owned by the state. Only the political will to compel bank lending to the productive sector is lacking.


In addition, both the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and European Investment Bank (EIB) have increased their net equity in the recent past, but cut their lending just when it would have most beneficial effect. The EBRD’s equity has risen by €133bn since 2010 but its lending has fallen by €89bn (p.5). In 2012 alone the EIB’s lending fell by €8bn even though its own funds increased by €13bn (pp.7 &8).

Taken together a prudent rise in the level of lending to infrastructure and other projects in both Eastern and Western Europe based on previous lending/capital ratios could provide significant funds towards an investment-led recovery.

The question of the Euro

As the crisis in Europe is determined by a refusal of the private sector to invest, and which is compounded by cuts in government investment and the investment of entities like the EBRD and EIB, it follows that only a significant increase in state-related bodies can resolve the crisis.

The latest GDP data show that the crisis is reaching into the ‘core’ of Europe. France and the Netherlands were among the countries whose economies contracted once more. Austria, Belgium and Germany only avoided recession by the narrowest of margins. This is a crisis that is engulfing the whole of Europe.

It is frequently suggested that leaving the Euro would provide a panacea for this crisis. Yet it is self-evident that not all countries can devalue against one another. Further, the argument that devaluation without increased investment will not produce a recovery requires only a one-word proof: Britain. Sterling devalued by approximately 30% in 2008 and 2009, without much of a rebound since. Yet the current account deficit has widened from -0.2% of GDP to 3.6% of GDP over that period.

Returning to earlier data on GDP growth, investment (GFCF) in the Euro Area and EU, we can now add further points on the growth of government spending and net exports. These are shown below for the Euro Area and for the EU economies outside the Euro Area as a separate group. The results are shown in Table 1. below.

Table 1. Key Economic Variable in Europe, Q1 2008 to Q4 2012, €bn
13 05 21 Table 1

The economies outside the Euro Area have contracted just like those inside the Euro Area. Government current spending has risen in both. But non-Euro countries have not had higher levels of investment. They have, on a net basis, simply gained in terms of net exports.

In this sense, the question of in or out of the Euro is a secondary one, which would not resolve the crisis either way if the investment slump is not addressed. Of course, there is a severe structural crisis in the Euro Area, which the crisis has exposed. The US has built a continental scale economy and so too has China. India appears to be heading in the same direction. The European Union has the potential to create the same.

But the Euro is an attempt to graft a 21st century monetary unity onto a 19th century patchwork of small nation states. What is required to supplement a monetary union is a fiscal union. Since that must be democratically controlled that also requires political union. In the United States, which is very far from the EU’s former attachment to the ‘social model’ fiscal transfers vary but generally comprise 12% to 15% of GDP. In the European Union they amount to around one-tenth of that. If the single currency is to be maintained then its principal beneficiaries will need to contribute to its maintenance, led by German capital.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Ireland - trying to solve the crisis at the expense of the people

By Michael Burke

The European Union has become the main drag on the world economy. At the end of last year the EU Commission had been forecasting GDP growth of 0.4% for 2103 for the EU as a whole and just 0.1% for the Euro Area. The recent IMF World Economic Outlook forecasts are for a second year of outright contraction, after a fall in GDP of 0.3% in 2012.

By contrast, among the worlds other large economies the IMF now expects the US to grow by a little under 2% and China to grow by 8%. Even if these forecasts prove to be slightly inaccurate they are indicative of what the IMF has rightly noted are three actual speeds in the world economy; strong growth, stagnation and contraction.

The Irish economy comprises a little more than 1% of the entire output of the EU. But it is held up as a case study in the effectiveness of austerity measures being generally applied by the IMF, EU and ECB. This is echoed and supported by the pro-austerity government in Dublin. Yet, with barely a murmur from the official media the latest GDP data confirm that Ireland went back into recession at the end of 2012, with two consecutive quarters of economic contraction. In addition, all forecasts for growth in 2013 are based on rising exports. But in the last 4 months exports have fallen compared to the same month a year ago.

Measuring success 

It is clear that the fall in investment remains the overwhelming source of the Irish Depression. GDP and GNP have contracted by €13.3bn and €11.9bn since the end of 2007 respectively. Investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) has fallen by €21bn. As elsewhere, it is an investment strike which is responsible for the slump.

Irish national accounts are shown in Chart 1 below from the end of the boom in 2007 to the end of 2012.

Chart 1
13 05 01 Chart 1

While investment has collapsed by €21bn, the fall in personal consumption has been about one third of that, at €7.1bn and the fall in government spending slightly lower at €5.6bn. It is repeatedly asserted that the performance of exports proves the validity of current economic policy. But while the increase in net exports has been very significant, this owes more to falling imports (which are treated as a negative in the national accounts) rather than rising exports. Recorded exports have risen by €11.7bn over the period while imports have fallen by €15.8bn – and these have now begun to falter.

Investment strike

The issue of resolving the economic crisis is therefore essentially about reversing the investment slump. From that, all other questions can be resolved, such as government spending and falling real incomes.

The source of the investment strike is a broad based refusal by the private sector to invest, which embraces all sectors of the economy. It has been exacerbated by the government’s cuts in its own investment.

The purpose of capital is its own preservation and expansion, not the general public well-being, or even the growth of the economy. Without profits, or the expectation of profits, capital will not be invested by the private sector and will instead be hoarded.

It is often suggested by genuinely anti-austerity commentators that what is required is wage growth. Wage growth would be very welcome. But without increased investment it is not sustainable. This is because output only really has two destinations, either consumption or investment. If the proportion devoted to investment falls, so will the growth rate of the economy. Ultimately, the whole of output can theoretically be consumed, but this would only lead to zero growth. The OECD country with consistently the highest proportion of output devoted to consumption is Greece. The fact that the US is also close to the top of this league table is merely because the rest of the world is willing to lend it money to finance that consumption, which is not an option currently available to Greece. The major economy with the highest proportion of investment is China, which also allows it to be the economy where consumption has grown at the fastest rate.

Further, industrialised economies need a high investment level simply to maintain current living standards. As each advanced economy already has a large proportion of fixed capital, so there is a rate of capital consumption (capital used in production, plus wear and tear or dilapidation) which requires investment simply in order to replace it. Currently, the proportion of investment in the Irish economy devoted to investment is just over 10% of GDP. This is approximately the same as the rate of capital consumption in the economy and means it will be impossible to sustain growth over the even the medium, let alone the long term. These are both shown in the Chart 2 below.

Chart 2
13 05 01 Chart 2

Who can pay for investment?

The international mantra of supporters of austerity is that ‘there is no money left’. But this is not the case in Ireland or anywhere else.

Data for 2012 have just been made available for wages and profits shown and are in chart 3 below. Austerity began in 2008. In cash terms the compensation of employees fell by €12.1bn over that period while the Gross Operating Surplus of firms (effectively profits before interest, taxes and other charges) has actually increased by €0.9bn. (All of these data are in nominal terms, before inflation. But inflation has been almost non-existent in Ireland over this period, so the real, inflation-adjusted level of wages and profits would be very similar).

Chart 3
13 05 01 Chart 3

This is the purpose of austerity - to transfer this reduction in incomes from capital to labour; from profits to wages. This explains why the representatives of Irish business are not up in arms over the effects of current policy and ‘falling demand’. Of course, some firms go bankrupt. But IBEC’s surviving members will not complain while profits are being restored. Austerity’s main purpose is being served – to restore profits- and to this extent, it is working.

The incomes of workers and households have declined dramatically. It is impossible for them to increase investment. But the incomes (profits) of companies are recovering. Yet their investment level has fallen, or at least it did until 2011.

There was paltry increase in investment in 2012, of just under €200mn compared to a €20.8bn decline in investment in the previous 4 years. At this rate, it would take 100 years for investment to recovery its pre-crisis levels. But it does highlight one way of resolving the crisis.

If wages and the social wage can be reduced still further, and sufficient capital can be scrapped, then the profit rate can recover. This will then encourage capital to be invested once more, which is what happened in 2012. But the very small increase in investment to date shows that the process of reducing wages and scrapping capital would have much further to run before this type of recovery can be secured. The burden of resolving the crisis is being shifted on to the shoulder of workers and the poor. It has much further and deeper to run.

The alternative is to use the levers of the state to direct idle capital towards investment; not reducing either investment or wages. These levers include the state’s own financial assets, not handing them over to creditors. They also include using the tax system to capture retained earnings, dividends and to prevent or discourage the repatriation of profits. The Government could also direct the real assets of the banks licensed in its jurisdiction, their deposits, towards productive investment with a return on those savings. Waiting for the private sector to lead a recovery will lead to poverty and immiseration for the population.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on Irish Left Review