Thursday, 25 February 2016

The mystery surrounding the ‘productivity puzzle’

By Michael Burke
The latest official data show how far the UK economy is lagging behind other industrialised economies in terms of productivity, in this case output per hour worked. There is too a long-standing discussion amongst economists in Britain about the so-called ‘productivity puzzle’. There is a genuine crisis of productivity in Britain. But in reality there is no productivity puzzle at all. It is easily explained by the weakness of investment. In particular, the recent fall in in the stock of capital in the British economy explains the almost unprecedented decline in UK productivity.

Currently, debate in Britain is dominated by the possibility of ‘Brexit’. This is an error. Under current circumstances, whether Britain is in or out of the EU is a trivial matter in economic terms compared to the crisis of productivity. This is because, contrary to George Osborne (and those on the left who are confused and echo him) it is not possible for consumption, or wages to lead economic recovery. Sustainable increases in consumption require sustainable increases in output. Unless that is achieved by more people simply working longer hours, then it must come via increased productivity. Without it, living standards will fall. This will be the case in or out of the EU.

Yet the latest ONS data show that productivity is falling. It also shows how far the UK economy lags behind other industrialised economies. Fig.1 below shows the relative productivity performance of the UK economy versus the other countries of the G7. According to the ONS, UK GDP per hour worked in 2014 was lower than the rest of the G7 average by 18%. Within that, it was lower than both the US and France by 31% and lower than Germany by 36%. The sole G7 economy whose productivity is lower than the UK’s is Japan, which has been stagnating for 25 years.

Fig. 1 Productivity Trends in the G7 Economies
 
 
This relative weakness is not confined to most of the G7. According to the ONS, UK productivity also lags that of Spain by 5%, Ireland by 30%, Belgium by 34% and the Netherlands by 45%.
 
The effects are twofold. If UK productivity is stagnating or falling, so will living standards. If relative productivity is declining the British economy will be less able to sell goods abroad, and its domestic industries will increasingly collapse through under-competitiveness. This is what is currently happening to the steel industry, for example.
 
The ‘productivity puzzle’
 
The purpose of all analysis or commentary should be to illuminate what is otherwise hidden or obscure. But economics differs fundamentally from the natural sciences in this key respect. No physicist has an interest in obscuring or denying the fundamental laws of physics, or in basing analysis on anything other than fundamental laws (although there is a strong interest in revising or reassessing them in light of new data).
 
However, in economics there are vested interests at work, social classes, whose enrichment or otherwise depends on economic outcomes. Therefore there is a very great material incentive to falsify or obscure the fundamental forces at work in the economy. This is why the fall in productivity has been a ‘puzzle’. Analysts and commentators have a false understanding of the fundamental laws of economics and attempt to fit empirical facts such as falling productivity into that false framework.

The official discussion of the crisis in productivity began with the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2012 and was later taken up by the Bank of England and many others. The timing was not coincidental as what had been a very weak recovery in productivity started to go into reverse from 2012 onwards. Productivity actually fell. This was by the worst performance for productivity of all recessions in the post-World War II era. It is almost unprecedented coming out of recession as Fig.2 below shows.
 
Fig.2 Productivity (output per hour) trends following recessions
Source: ONS
 
The argument has been advanced that the crisis in productivity reflects the changing composition of output, with the decline of relatively high productivity sectors and the increase of low productivity ones. Specifically, it is said that the decline of North Sea oil output, as well as the crisis in financial services have depressed productivity while the allegedly low level of public sector productivity has the same effect. Using ONS data is it easy to refute these claims (Table 1 below).
 
Table 1
* Workforce jobs figures, benchmarked to Labour Force Survey totals
Source: ONS
 
North Sea oil output (under Mining & quarrying) is the most productive sector of the economy, with output per hour worked 12 times greater than for the economy as a whole. It fell 7.3% during the recession, slightly more than the economy as a whole (since revised upwards). But as it accounts for just 2.7% of all output, arithmetically it cannot be responsible for the weakness of productivity as whole
 
The output of the finance sector is a very large component of the British economy, whose measured productivity level is approximately half as great as the economy as a whole. But its output fell slightly less than that of the economy, so its decline cannot be responsible for the productivity crisis.
 
The public sector is also widely held to be a low productivity sector, although measuring outputs from sectors such as health or education is done at market prices, which almost certainly undervalues them. The output of this sector initially rose during the recession, which is natural to cope with a rising population. But the total economy productivity crisis persisted after the recession and deepened from 2012 onwards. The combined output of the civil service, health and education sectors have all risen since then by a combined 5.4% between 2009 and 2012, according to ONS data. At the same time the public sector workforce has shrunk by 8.9% because of the austerity policy. There has therefore been a significant increase in public sector productivity, outstripping all other sectors of the economy.

The productivity crisis is not caused by the changing composition of output. It is a crisis of the private sector and embraces all sectors.
 
Much of the confusion on the source of the productivity crisis arises from an incorrect economic framework. One of the clearest expressions of this misunderstanding is as follows:
 
“Ever since the industrial revolution, economic growth has rested on the firm foundation of better use of buildings and machines and improvements in the level of output for every hour worked.” Chris Giles, Economics Editor of the Financial Times, Solving the productivity puzzle is key to government finances

This is the view that Total Factor Productivity (TFP) “the better use of building and machinery….” is the driving force behind economic growth. But this proposition is ridiculous when set in this historical context. The driving force behind economic growth is not that better use has been made of buildings and machines since the industrial revolution, but that there have been vastly more buildings, machines and other contributors to the productive capacity of the economy since that time. According to Bank of England data (Three centuries of economic data) from 1850 to 2000 the accumulation of productive capital has been twice as fast as the growth in output. This is entirely in line with the analysis of Adam Smith and Marx, who respectively argued that the ‘rise in stock’ or the ‘rising organic composition of capital’ exceeds the growth rate of output itself.
 
It is also not possible to explain the uniquely poor performance of UK productivity by reference to TFP or ‘better use of buildings and machinery’, as in a modern economy businesses based in Britain could simply learn those techniques and/or buy the technology from overseas to make better use of their existing stock of productive capital.
 
The reason for the calamitous decline in UK productivity is because it has been reducing the existing stock of capital in the economy.
 
Scrapping productive capacity
 
It is extremely rare for the level of productive capital to decline. The Bank of England data noted above records only two instances since 1850 in Britain when the capital stock fell, the first two years of World War I and in the Great Depression.

More usually, the capital stock grows. Indeed it is this drive to accumulate capital for the purpose of realising profits that gives capitalism its dynamic force and its capacity to raise the material level of society. However, all capitalist economies are determined by the realisation of profit, not by the accumulation of productive capacity for its own sake, or to raise the material level of society. Profit is the raison d'être. As a result, if profits are declining, or by scrapping unprofitable plant or machinery profits will increase, it is quite usual for productive capacity to be scrapped. Individual firms do this on a continuous basis. In exceptional periods there may be circumstances when capital in aggregate is being scrapped. This characterises the current period (Fig.3).
 
Fig. 3 UK Capital Stock Index
 
The close correlation between the trend in capital stock and the level of productivity is shown in Fig.4 below. In fact the level of capital stock leads the productivity level by one year, so that the capital stock first fell in 2011 and the first recorded fall in productivity was in 2012.
 
Fig. 4 Capital Stock & Productivity

Furthermore, this outright decline in the stock of capital is unique to the UK economy in the G7 currently. Among the economies for which there is data, since 2010 the US capital stock has risen by 4.1%. In Germany it has increasd by 2% and in France by 1.9%. Italy has increased by just 0.6%, and so is effectively unchanged. But in Britain it has fallen by 2.1%.
 
The relationship between the level of productive capital and the level of productivity is clear across the industrialised economies. If other factors are unchanged, the higher the stock of capital, the greater the level of productivity. This can be illustrated in Fig.5 below, which shows the trends in the capital stock in selected G7 economies.
 
Fig.5 Trends in Capital Stock in Selected G7 Economies

This is almost a mirror image of the trends in productivity shown in Fig. 1 above. Changes in productivity track changes in the productive forces of the economy, led by the stock of capital. Over this period, the US has both the largest increase in capital stock and the greatest increase in productivity. The UK, which had previously been a relatively strong performer both in terms of the growth in productivity and the growth in capital stock, is now the sole economy shown where both productivity and the capital stock are falling.
 
Conclusion
 
There is no mystery around the ‘productivity puzzle’. It is a function of the weakness of UK investment in both absolute and relative terms. The decline in productivity is preceded 1 year by a decline in the capital stock. This declining capital stock is itself an extremely rare event. According to Bank of England data it has only occurred twice previously in Britain since 1850.
 
The puzzle arises only because there is a mystification of the driving forces behind productivity growth and economic growth in general. In the first instance, after the division of labour, growth is driven by the amount and quality of capital in productive in use in the economy.
 
In the UK productive capacity is being scrapped. This is not because there is no unsatisfied demand in the UK economy. On the contrary, there is both a scarcity of necessities, such as in housing and healthcare and other areas, as well as a large trade deficit. The productive capacity is being scrapped because its owners cannot make profits, or do not anticipate sufficient profits in a situation of growing competition and sluggish growth in consumption, for example in the steel industry. To survive and prosper, the owners of the UK steel industry would have to leap towards the front of global productivity or technical quality through very large scale investment and they are unwilling or unable to do so.
 
A reduction in the stock of capital is one way in which capital can overcome declining profitability. Marx identified some of the others as increasing the working day, which is happening in the UK and US but not elsewhere. Other factors which can offset falling profitability are a reduction in the cost of capital goods (the means of production), a reduction of (real) wages, increasing the division of labour through the growth of foreign trade or by boosting profits through increased financial speculation.
 
Many of these factors are at work in a number of countries. But Britain is the only G7 country where the capital stock is actually falling. The other OECD economies where the capital stock has fallen are Denmark, Greece and Slovenia. It is possible Britain may be a harbinger of more general international trends.
 
For now though, this weakness puts the British economy in a uniquely vulnerable position in the global slowdown. So it is no exaggeration to say that under current circumstances the need for state-led investment to rescue the economy and living standards from renewed crisis is more acute in Britain than elsehwere in the G7 economies. When John McDonnell says, “our mantra is investment, investment, investment,” this is exactly what is required to stave off renewed economic weakness.
 

Monday, 15 February 2016

Labour's economic alternative to the budget should centre on a National Investment Bank

By Michael Burke and John Ross
Introduction
Labour is now carrying out extremely effective campaigning against Tory policies – on tax credits, on the sweetheart Google taxation deal, in support of the junior doctors and pinning the responsibility for the crisis in the NHS squarely on the Tories. This excellent work needs to continue and be strengthened.
But in the forthcoming budget Labour must also set out the framework for a comprehensive macro-economic alternative to Osborne’s austerity. This article argues why the centre piece of this should be to reinforce the existing pledge to increase infrastructure investment with the establishment of a National Investment Bank.
Osborne left swimming naked as the economic tide goes out
In a famous phrase the American billionaire investor Warren Buffet said of the economy: "when the tide goes out… you discover who's been swimming naked." Chancellor George Osborne fits this phrase perfectly. As the world economy slows, with consequent turmoil on financial markets, it is demonstrated that the Chancellor’s claims of ‘economic success’ are entirely bluff.
What Osborne has done in the last six years is to go on an international borrowing binge which failed to correct the basic imbalances and weaknesses in the British economy and he has left it dangerously unprepared for and exposed to the current slowdown in the world economy. Osborne ensured that the average British citizen, and even more the poorest members of society and those who rely on the NHS, pay the price for his failure to confront the key issues in the British economy. His real policy was exemplified in the sweetheart deal for Google, the recreation of the ‘bonus culture’ in banks, in contrast to the attack on the NHS and his attempt to ram through cuts in tax credits. This is the real context for Osborne’s coming Budget.
Instead of the further attacks on living standards and profligate international borrowing the appropriate macro-economic policy framework for Labour would focus on two things.
· First, to address Britain’s chronic investment shortage – only by increasing investment can living standards sustainably rise.
· Second, to prepare contingency measures in the event that the current slowdown worsens.
In contrast to Osborne’s attack on living standards and profligate international borrowing, Labour’s policy of productive investment, led by the creation of a National Investment Bank (NIB), should begin to tackle the basic imbalances in the British economy. The NIB will finance the economic growth that will lead to both rising wages and rebuilding social services, and will prepare Britain for the new international choppy waters it is entering.
In short people will be ‘better off with Labour’.
Osborne’s reckless international borrowing
The key current trends in the global and British economic situation are clear.
The world economy is slowing and Britain is not excluded from this – puncturing Osborne’s claim of ‘economic success’. In line with these economic realities the World Bank has cut its growth forecasts for the leading economies and the Bank of England has cut its growth forecast for the British economy. The British economy has in fact been slowing for some time with 3% growth in mid-2014 declining to 1.9% at the end of last year.
But Figure 1 shows the real basis of even the temporary upturn of British growth – Osborne’s rapidly growing international borrowing which leaves Britain exposed to the new worsening of the international economy.
When Osborne became Chancellor in May 2010, i.e. during the 2nd quarter of 2010, Britain’s rate of net overseas borrowing was an annualised £31.2 billion. By the 3rd quarter of 2015, the latest available data, it was an annualised £70.9 billion. As a percentage of GDP overseas borrowing almost doubled from 2.0% of GDP to 3.8%- as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1
16 02 15 Chart 1

Under Osborne Britain, as shown in Figure 2, has borrowed an extraordinary £340 billion from abroad – equivalent to nearly one fifth of Britain’s current GDP. Far from being ‘prudent’ the Chancellor has simply financed his so called ‘recovery’ by the most unstable form of borrowing – from foreign creditors.
Figure 2
16 02 16 Chart 2

Failure of investment to recover
Yet despite Osborne’s extraordinary rate of foreign borrowing the Chancellor has failed to correct the most fundamental of all imbalances in the British economy, and the key source of its economic problems such as low growth and low productivity increases – its inadequate investment level.
Despite the inevitable severe initial fall in fixed investment under the impact of the international financial crisis, from 19.0% of GDP in 2007 to 15.6% of GDP when the Chancellor came to office, Osborne has ensured that any economic growth which did occur in the cyclical recovery overwhelmingly went into consumption not investing for the future. Between the 2nd quarter of 2010 when Osborne came to office and the latest data for the 3rd quarter of 2015 in current price terms three quarters of the recovery in output went into consumption and only a quarter into investment. This failure to invest has left Britain both unable to sustain any prolonged economic expansion and exposed to any international economic downturn.
The real Budget choice
The Chancellor claims that he must impose even greater austerity in the March Budget, due to Britain facing a “dangerous cocktail of new threats”. The reality is that it is Osborne’s own policies, his failure to invest, his large scale international borrowing, which are a particularly dangerous liquor in that concoction.
The reality of this ‘dangerous cocktail’ is that the Chancellor is the barman. The British economy is slowing and unprepared for any international downturn because he recklessly promoted consumption, in particular soaring house prices, in order to get re-elected and it is that short-lived mini-boom financed by foreign borrowing which is inevitably fading.
The failure was inevitable because rising consumption without investment cannot be sustained. It simply leads to more debt or a rundown in savings. A sustainable growth in economic growth and consumption must be based on investment. This hard economic reality is the core of Labour’s alternative for a sustainable economic recovery.
Such investment for sustainable economic recovery is precisely what is lacking under Osborne. Since the beginning of the crisis in the 1st quarter of 2008 in inflation adjusted terms consumption has risen by £89.3 billion. Over the same period Investment has risen by just £9.3 billion. It is no surprise therefore that in per capita terms GDP has barely risen at all, or that more people are working longer hours for the same real return on pay. It is almost unprecedented for productivity to stagnate during most of a recovery phase but this is what Osbornomics has achieved because investment has remained so weak.
The Chancellor’s policy of austerity weakened the economy and sapped investment further. Under George Osborne the Government cut its own level of investment. The consequence of Osborne’s economic policies was that productivity actually declined from mid-2011 onwards and had only just recovered in time for the General Election. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), “UK productivity in 2014 was lower than that of France, Germany and the US by 32-33 percentage points, and lower than that of the rest of the G7 by 20 percentage points.” Both of these are record gaps in productivity with the rest of the G7. Higher living standards and improved productivity depend on higher investment which Osborne demonstratively failed to produce.
Furthermore, the Chancellor’s “fiscal charter” makes the situation worse. Osborne does not understand the difference between borrowing for investment and borrowing for consumption – something every business and every family understands. By lumping all forms of government borrowing together, and rejecting them all, he would ban a family not only from seeking to pay its electricity or food on credit card borrowing, which is a road to ruin, but also from borrowing to buy a house – a totally sensible objective.
If Osborne were a farmer his fiscal charter would rule he should not invest in a tractor – because it involved borrowing!
‘Extremists’ supporting infrastructure investment
Labour should restore sanity to public finances by clearly distinguishing productive capital expenditure, investment, from current expenditure – consumption. Labour should not borrow over the course of the business cycle for current expenditure. But it will borrow for productive investment – thereby laying the basis for economic growth and rising living standards.
In reality at present particularly favourable conditions exist to borrow for infrastructure spending at extremely historically favourable rates which will boost the productivity of the British economy– as writers such as Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times and figures such as former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, have rightly emphasised. Indeed, the words Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times on 13 February 2014 require no alteration:
“Does the UK have a sensible strategy for recovery? Just recall: the last time it [the UK] tried the credit-expansion route to growth, it ended up in a huge financial crisis. Why should it rationally expect a different outcome this time?...
An expansion of private borrowing to buy ever more expensive houses is deemed good, but an expansion of government borrowing, to build roads or railways, is not. Privately created credit-backed money is thought sound, while government-created money is not. None of this makes much sense.”1
Or if the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times is a too ‘hard left’ extremist for the Chancellor perhaps he will listen to the words of his former US counterpart – US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers:
“The… approach… that holds most promise –means ending the disastrous trend towards ever less government spending and employment each year – and taking advantage of the current period of economic slack to renew and build up our infrastructure. If the government had invested more over the past five years, our debt burden relative to our incomes would be lower: allowing slackening in the economy has hurt its potential in the long run.”2
Labour’s policy of sustainable investment and a National Investment Bank
Labour’s approach is diametrically opposite to Osborne’s. It has repeatedly set out the case for increased public sector investment – which, through economic growth and the well-known ‘multiplier effect,’ will stimulate and not reduce private investment. Labour has correctly stated it will run a balanced budget on current spending over the business cycle. This means the Government borrowing over the course of the business cycle will be exclusively directed towards investment. The Chancellor’s false fiscal charter failure to distinguish current expenditure and investment will be scrapped. The government will borrow for investment – including by creating a National Investment Bank. But current spending on public services would be met from taxation revenues.
This is correct because it is sustainable. Borrowing for investment in some cases, for example on transport or housing, leads directly to revenue. But above all it leads to economic growth and therefore rising tax revenues. As a result, the Government can finance its borrowing from those rising tax revenues. By contrast, persistently borrowing to fund current or day-to-day spending (frequently, and inaccurately described as ‘Keynesianism’) is unsustainable.
Labour’s approach is to increase investment. This will lead to stronger and more sustainable economic growth. The effect on government revenues is twofold. Tax revenues will rise with increased economic activity. At the same time Government outlays will fall as more people are in work and more of those workers are in higher-skilled, higher paid jobs. As a result, the current budget will actually move towards balance.
This is in contrast to austerity, which is the economic equivalent of applying leeches to a very sick patient. This is the reason the Chancellor will again miss his deficit targets in the current Financial Year, the reason why the deficit rose in 2012 as austerity took hold and the reason why the Chancellor is nowhere near eliminating the deficit as he had boasted in 2010. Austerity attempts to shift government debt and deficits onto the shoulders of ordinary people, and so weakens the economy that businesses reduce investment even further.
National Investment Bank
The centrepiece of Labour’s investment policy is the creation of a National Investment Bank. This will invest in key infrastructure projects, renewable energy, transport, affordable rented housing and education. This would be founded by public sector capital and borrow in the financial markets with the implicit guarantee of the UK Treasury.
As a result it will be able to borrow at close to the extraordinarily low interest rate levels currently available to the Government itself. These interest rate levels represent the financial market appetite to lend to Government. Currently, UK Government bond (gilts) yields are less than 1% for 5 year and 1.5% for 10 years. It can even borrow for 46 years at a yield of MINUS 1% on index-linked (linked to inflation) gilts. This represents the desire of long-term investment vehicles such as pension and insurance funds to invest securely over very long maturities and the absence of instruments to invest in.
In these circumstances a refusal to borrow for investment is economically irresponsible and counterproductive. In addition to the beneficial productive effects for the economy there is a clear ‘signal’ from the market that it wants to lend to government. Once more to quote that key member of the ‘hard left’ Martin Wolf from the Financial Times on 17 May 2012:
“With real interest rates close to zero… it is impossible to believe that the government cannot find investments to make itself, or investments it can make with the private sector, or private investments whose tail risks it can insure that do not earn more than the real cost of funds. If that were not true, the UK would be finished. Not only the economy, but the government itself is virtually certain to be better off if it undertook such investments and if it were to do its accounting in a rational way… This does not even deserve the label primitive. It is simply ridiculous.”3
The initial funding for the National Investment Bank, which will play a key role in Labour’s increase in investment, is straightforward. The Government should borrow the capital utilising the opportunity presented by current extremely low interest rates. In more unfavourable circumstances of severe economic downturn Labour would be prepared to use People’s Quantitative Easing, finance created by the Bank of England to finance productive investment as opposed to the bank bailouts it has hitherto been chiefly directed to, but such a policy is not necessary in present circumstances to finance the NIB. Approximately £50 billion should be raised over the course of a parliament to fund the NIB.
This is a substantial amount to fund the initial capital for an infrastructure investment bank. In Germany the equivalent bank is the KfW (originally Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau or Reconstruction Credit Institute). The KfW has €21.6 billion of equity capital and total capital (including debt) of €73.4 billion which supports €489 billion in assets (lending to projects). It would take time for the NIB to reach that position, but it shows what is possible.
Crucially, the NIB would be able to use this Government-funded capital to borrow on its own account in the financial markets. Under the arcane rules of Government finances it need not count on the Government’s balance sheet at all, either as borrowing or accumulated debt. As the KfW example shows, it is possible to borrow comfortably around six or seven times the original capital.
Economic Impact
One of the objections to public sector-led investment programmes is that there are no ‘shovel-ready’ projects to invest in – which would itself be a disgrace given Britain’s lack in investment and productivity compared to other countries already noted. But even this argument has collapsed now that the Government has established its own National Infrastructure Commission with a National Infrastructure Plan. No doubt, Labour can set some of its best brains to revising and re-prioritising the Plan in relation to its own economic priorities. But the Plan and the projects are already there. The problem is the Government, because of its essentially exclusive reliance on the private sector, is simply not delivering them on the scale and pace required.
The work of building up the necessary projects for investment, including by the National Investment Bank, could begin immediately and would be well towards the final goal over the lifetime of the parliament. In the first year the NIB could be established and funded, and borrowing begun and projects prioritised for work to begin or increase in the second year. By the end of the current Parliament work could have been under way for a full three years.
In reality, this Government has no intention of following that route. Although it established a minuscule ‘Green investment Bank’ this was a political sop and is being wound up. But Labour could begin the detailed preparatory work now and hit the ground running in 2020. A full four years of productive investment is possible.
In four years a capital programme funded by £50 billion in capital and amounting to £300 billion in total could be well under way. The general economic impact is possible to gauge using the UK Treasury’s own economic modelling. Investment in infrastructure has the effect of raising growth in the short-term and by increasing growth over the long-term through improved productivity. The precise impact varies by sector and by project, but in a range of raising growth by between 1.5 and 1.9 times the initial investment. On average we can say that a £300 billion investment programme will raise GDP by around £500 billion (an approximate average of 1.7 times).
In general, according to UK Treasury models (pdf), every £1 increase in economic output is reflected as a 75 pence improvement in government finances. 50 pence of this arises from increased taxation revenues and 25 pence from lower outlays as poverty reduces and employment grows. Therefore, over time three-quarters of the additional growth produced by the NIB’s investment programme will return to Government in the form of higher tax revenues and lower outlays. This is an improvement of £375 billion (out of £500 billion in increased output) in total government finances over a period of years. Just as the private sector invests for growth and a financial return, so too should the public sector. The difference is that the public sector also enjoys a further financial benefit not available to the private sector; increased taxation revenues and lower social spending outlays.
From these funds, it is possible to increase investment further and to fund the improvement, not the deterioration in public finances. It is possible to upgrade the NHS and improve it, to address the schools shortage and return to free higher education. Social protection can be improved and a decent level of income in retirement provided for all.
The forthcoming Budget will threaten to undermine further the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the population. But it will therefore be an opportunity for Labour to set out a very clear alternative that will begin to reverse that process and raise their living standards. Naturally Labour will have to deal with reversing numerous anti-social policies in the budget but the macro-economic centre piece of its alternative should be the pledge to raise investment, a clear distinction between current and capital expenditure in the budget, and the establishment of a National Investment Bank.

References
1. Wolf, M. (2014, February 13). Hair of the dog risks a bigger hangover for Britain. Retrieved February 20, 2014b, from Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/1cd67c18-93e6-11e3-a0e1-00144feab7de.html?siteedition=intl#axzz2silAZOQx
2. Summers, L. (2014, January 5). Washington must not settle for secular stagnation. Financial Times.
3.Wolf, M. (2012, May 17). Cameron is consigning the UK to stagnation. Financial Times.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Better off with Labour – the alternative to Osborne’s cuts

By Matt Willgress of the Labour Assembly Against Austerity

The following article deals with Osborne’s responsibility for the current slow down in the British economy. The article previously appeared here on Left Futures under the title ‘No hiding place for Osborne’.

*     *     *

The British mainstream media is now so clearly biased in favour of the ruling party it can sometimes seem as if politics is entirely divorced from reality. But reality has a habit of intruding on make-believe. This is the position George Osborne now finds himself in.

In the Autumn Statement, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) ‘awarded’ Osborne £27 billion in lower Budget deficits because of projected stronger growth. The March 2016 Budget is likely to tell a very different story, with growth forecasts slashed. Osborne is likely to admit that the Tory Government will again miss its deficit for the current Financial Year and has, in the words of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP, “been getting his excuses in early.”

In June 2010 Osborne and the OBR projected that the £153 billion deficit would now be eliminated. Yet it only narrowed by £64 billion. Even the OBR’s latest forecast shows the deficit at £73.5 billion for the current year, meaning the deficit is still close half its original size.

The reason for this is twofold: growth has been far below official estimates and cuts don’t lead to savings. Austerity slowed the economy to a standstill in 2012 and then Osborne abandoned new measures austerity measures, instead stoking up consumption and house prices to help get re-elected. Government current spending is also £40 billion a year higher than when the Coalition took office, because austerity increases low pay, under-employment and poverty. At the same time, it is Government investment that has actually collapsed.

Ideological cuts

How could Osborne have got it so wrong?

He is often described as an ‘ideological Chancellor.’ He believes in austerity and shrinking the state, subscribing to the notion that the state impedes growth and that removing its role in the productive sectors of the economy will lead to prosperity. This applies across the board – to education and health, banking as well as energy, water, transport, or house building. He believes his medicine works and is repeatedly surprised when it doesn’t. He is then obliged to rationalise or find excuses for its failure.

This is what led him to a U-turn on growth. But any observer of the economic data would know that the economy was already slowing. To take one example the annual growth rate had already slowed to 2.1% in the third quarter of 2015 from 3% in mid-2014.

Rationalisation of the troubles to come

In his ‘cocktail of negative factors’ affecting the economy Osborne cited the turmoil in the Middle East, the slowdown in China and falling commodities’ prices. All of these are international factors of varying significance. But in truth the continued slowdown in the British economy is mainly home-grown.

Middle East turmoil has been a continuous factor since Britain and the US first began bombing it some years ago. But as it is not new it cannot be responsible for a downturn.

In terms of China, Britain does not export much and very little of that low total is destined for China, just 2% of total UK exports. The Chinese economy has slowed from 7.5% growth to 6.5%. The direct effect on Britain’s growth is therefore negligible.

The fall in commodities’ prices is very significant globally, and depresses Britain’s North Sea oil output. But as Britain is a big net importer of commodities, the collapse in commodities’ prices is a net benefit to the British economy.

Reality intrudes

The responsibility for the slowdown in Britain can be laid squarely with Osborne. He inherited a slow recovery in 2010 and promptly stalled it with austerity. Because the economy was stagnating in 2012 and Tory poll ratings fell, Osborne then stoked rising consumption and house prices in order to get re-elected. That short-lived and unsustainable boom-let which is now running out of steam.

This was predicted by numerous leading economists. Now, Osborne will deepen this slowdown by imposing a second round of austerity. It will have the same effect as the first, although in circumstances of slowdown rather than recovery.

But the political situation has changed dramatically. There can be no blaming the effects of this new crisis on Labour. Instead, Labour now has a leadership utterly opposed to austerity and beginning to advance an alternative to it.

In addition, wider layers of society are drawn into opposition to aspects of austerity. This includes highly skilled health workers. It will increasingly include teachers, students, industrial workers, housing association tenants and many more, struggles that can be linked together through initiatives such as those organised by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.

Not only is the broad anti-austerity movement is growing, but crucially under Jeremy Corbyn there is now a political leadership in Parliament to offer an alternative policy for Government. The fightback is stepping up – we all have a duty to get involved, both in building the People’s Assembly Against Austerity movement, including its Labour wing the Labour Assembly Against Austerity, and in building Labour’s electoral support for this year’s London Mayoral Contest and the election of a Jeremy-Corbyn led Government in 2020.


See labourassemblyagainstausterity.org.uk and www.thepeoplesassemblyagainstausterity.org.uk for more information and to get involved.

EVENT: Better Off With Labour – The Alternative To Osborne’s Cuts – 9 March 6.45pm, House of Commons.
  Annual LAAA pre-budget event with speakers including John McDonnell MP and Cat Smith MP. RSVP on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/events/1254712247879119/

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Lessons for Latin America from China’s Economic Success

By: John Ross 

The following article deals with the lessons for the Latin American left from China's unprecedented history of economy growth, poverty reduction, and rising living standards. Its central point is that the Latin American left is rightly proud of the 'revolution in distribution' since left wing governments appeared in Latin America. But Latin America has also needs to study the 'revolution in production' of China - that is the securing of decades of rapid economic growth which provided the underpinning for prolonged increases in living standards.

The article appeared in English and Spanish for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit. While specific points on the alleviation of extreme forms of poverty apply to developing countries nevertheless the overall economic framework, that state led investment is the key to sustained growth, also applies to Europe.

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Latin America in the period led by left-wing governments made a fundamental ‘revolution in distribution’ to the enormous benefit of the continent’s people. As the World Bank analysed in 2013: ‘For the first time ever, a decade of strong economic growth within the region saw employment increase and wage inequality drop, contributing to an unprecedented reduction in poverty and an increase in prosperity for all levels of society... average real incomes in Latin America have… risen by more than 25% since the turn of the millennium. And with the lowest wages increasing considerably faster than the regional average, it has been the poorest 40% who have benefitted the most.’

From 1999-2012, 31 million people in Latin America were lifted out of the World Bank’s international definition of extreme poverty of $1.90 daily expenditure in internationally comparable terms (parity purchasing powers at 2011 prices). In the same period 52 million were lifted out of World Bank defined poverty of daily $3.10 expenditure measured in the same units.

The basis of this tremendous social progress was accelerated economic growth in contrast to the economic catastrophe produced in the late 20th century by neo-liberal policies.

Until 1993 average per capita GDP in developing Latin American economies remained below 1981 levels. By 1998 annual average per capita GDP growth was still only 0.9% – using a five-year average to avoid the influence of short term fluctuations.

Only after Chavez was elected Venezuela’s President in 1998, followed by other left wing Latin American leaders, did economic growth seriously accelerate. By 2007 annual average per capita GDP growth in Latin America reached 2.8%, again taking a five-year average, with faster growth in key countries including Venezuela’s 5.7% and Argentina’s 7.7%. The left wing governments ‘revolution in distribution’ ensured the benefits of this economic growth was shared by Latin America’s population.

But unfortunately recent economic setbacks indicate that this ‘revolution in distribution’ was not yet matched by an equivalent ‘revolution in production’ – an ability to maintain strong positive economic growth in the face of negative world economic trends. Taking the latest available data Argentina’s GDP growth has fallen to 0.5% and Brazil’s is -1.7%.

Due to the consequences of such economic slowdowns right wing forces won Argentina’s recent presidential election and Venezuela’s legislative elections while a (so far unsuccessful) attempt to impeach Brazil’s President is underway. This is particularly serious as such right wing forces present themselves as ‘centrist’ for propaganda purposes but in reality their economic programmes represent a shift towards neo-liberalism – polices which have produced economic disaster not only in Latin America but elsewhere. Failure to maintain substantial economic growth in adverse global circumstances therefore led to highly undesirable setbacks.

I am based in China but follow Latin America closely and have travelled there numerous times including twice for conferences with President Chavez personally. From this experience I believe it is crucial Latin America’s left closely studies China’s economy – not in the sense that China’s model can be mechanically copied, but in the sense that key economic processes operate in it which are equally applicable to Latin America.

China successfully made a ‘revolution in production.’ For nearly four decades China’s economy grew annually at over 8%, taking it from one of the world’s poorest countries to the threshold of a ‘high income economy’ by international criteria. This was the largest ‘revolution in production’ in human history. Even after the international financial crisis produced global economic slowdown, China in 2015 achieved 6.9% growth.

Contrary to US myth, China’s growth did not benefit chiefly the rich but ordinary people. China lifted 728 million people from World Bank defined poverty. In 2015 the average inflation adjusted real disposable income of China’s population rose by 7.4%. This is the type of ‘revolution in production’ Latin America needs.

The differences between Latin America and the ‘China model’ are clear. Modern statistical methods, officially adopted by the UN and OECD, show that fixed investment accounts for over half GDP growth. China’s high investment level explained its rapid growth – in 2014 China’s fixed investment was 44% of GDP. Latin America’s far lower investment level makes it impossible to achieve rapid growth and maintain this in adverse global circumstances - Argentina’s fixed investment level is 17% of GDP, Brazil’s 20%, Venezuela’s 22% - Ecuador, however, had a decisively higher investment level at 28% of GDP. Taking into account capital depreciation the contrast is greater.

Net savings, the finance available for additional investment, is 32% of China’s Gross National Income compared to 7% in Argentina and 5% in Brazil. Some countries, Bolivia and Ecuador, have achieved levels of 15% but this is still below China’s level. With such low levels of fixed investment rapid growth and anti-cyclical stimulus packages are impossible.

The reason for China’s rapid investment growth is clear. China has both a private and a state sector but it is not a ‘mixed economy’ in a Western sense. In Western economies the private sector is dominant, in China there is a ‘dominant position of public ownership’ to use the official formula. In Western terminology China’s model can also be expressed in Keynes’ concepts: ‘the duty of ordering the current volume of investment cannot safely be left in private hands’, there should be ‘a socially controlled rate of investment,’ requiring ‘a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment.’

The ‘China model’ did not eliminate the private sector but made state investment the economy’s driving force - with the private sector also benefitting from the resulting growth. It is China’s ability to have a state sector which does not administer the economy but is sufficiently large to maintain and control the economy’s investment level which explains China’s success. It is this model of an economy, which does not eliminate the private sector but is driven by high levels of state investment, that explains China’s rapid growth and differentiates its model from that of most of Latin America.

For economic success, study of China’s ‘revolution in production’ should supplement the ‘revolution in distribution’ of which the Latin American left is so justly proud.

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John Ross is Senior Fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China in Beijing.

This article was originally published by teleSUR at the following address:
http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Lessons-for-Latin-America-from-Chinas-Economic-Success-20160126-0014.html


¿Qué puede aprender América Latina del crecimiento económico de China?

Por: John Ross

En el periodo de gobiernos de izquierda, Latinoamérica logró una ‘revolución de distribución’ fundamental, beneficiando a enormemente a los pueblos del continente.

De acuerdo con reportes del Banco Mundial en el 2013, ‘por primera vez, existió una década donde aumentó el empleo y disminuyó la desigualdad salarial en la región, lo cual contribuyó a una reducción sin precedentes de la pobreza y un incremento de la prosperidad para todos los estratos de la sociedad...los ingresos promedios de Latinoamérica han subido más de 25% en el nuevo siglo. Junto con los ingresos más bajos aumentando más rápido que el promedio regional, es el 40% más pobre que se ha beneficiado más.’ (traducción no oficial)

Entre 1999 y 2012, 31 millones de personas de Latinoamérica han salido de la pobreza extrema, de acuerdo a las definiciones del Banco Mundial de $1.90 diario en términos comparables a nivel internacional (paridad de poder adquisitivo según precios de 2011). Durante el mismo período, 52 millones de personas salieron de la pobreza definida de acuerdo a un gasto diario de $3.10, medido en las mismas unidades.

La base de este enorme progreso social fue un crecimiento económico acelerado, en comparación a la catástrofe económica generada a fines del siglo XX a causa de las políticas neoliberales. Hasta 1993, el Producto Interno Bruto (PIB) per cápita en los países latinoamericanos en vías de desarrollo se mantuvo por debajo de las cifras registradas en 1981. En 1998, el crecimiento promedio anual del PIB per cápita aún era sólo de un 0.9%, utilizando un promedio de cinco años para evitar la fluctuaciones de corto plazo.

Sólo posterior a la elección del presidente venezolano Hugo Chávez en 1998, seguido por una ola de líderes de izquierda, el crecimiento económico tuvo una gran aceleración. En el 2007, el promedio de crecimiento anual del PIB per cápita, de cinco años, había alcanzado 2.8%, un aceleramiento donde se destacan Venezuela con 5.7% y Argentina con 7.7%. La ‘revolución de distribución’ de los gobiernos de izquierda aseguró que los beneficios de este crecimiento económico sean compartidos entre la población latinoamericana.

Desafortunadamente, la adversidad económica ha impedido que esta ‘revolución de la distribución’ no esté acompañada de una ‘revolución de producción’, es decir, la habilidad de sostener un fuerte crecimiento económico en tiempos de tendencias económicas negativas a nivel mundial. De acuerdo a estadísticas más recientes, el crecimiento del PIB en Argentina ha caído a un 0.5% y el de Brasil a -1.7%.

Debido a las consecuencias del desaceleramiento económico, la derecha triunfó en las últimas elecciones presidenciales en Argentina y en las elecciones parlamentarias en Venezuela, mientras que en Brasil, grupos opositores intentan enjuiciar y destituir a la Presidenta.

Esto es bastante grave, ya que mientras que las fuerzas que apoyan estas transiciones políticas se presentan como fuerzas ‘centristas’ para fines propagandísticos, las medidas económicas que implementan son netamente neoliberales y han generado desastres económicos en distintos lugares, no solo en Latinoamérica. El fracaso de mantener el crecimiento económico en un escenario adverso ha desatado estos retrocesos.

Aunque estoy trabajando en China, sigo los acontecimientos en Latinoamérica en detalle, y he viajado allá en distintas ocasiones, incluyendo dos veces para asistir a conferencias con el Presidente Chávez. A partir de esta experiencia, creo que es fundamental que la izquierda Latinoamericana estudie la economía china, no para aplicar de forma calcada el modelo chino, sino para entender que hay procesos económicos claves que operan en él y que se pueden aplicar a Latinoamérica.

China logró exitosamente una ‘revolución de la producción’. Durante un periodo de cuatro décadas, la economía china creció por sobre el 8%, pasando de ser uno de los países más pobres al umbral de ‘economía de altos ingresos’, según estándares internacionales. Esta fue la ‘revolución de producción’ más grande de la historia, incluso posterior a la crisis financiera internacional de 2015, China logró un crecimiento del 6.9%.

Contraria a la típica creencia estadounidense, el crecimiento chino no fue en beneficio de los más ricos, sino de la gente común. China logró sacar a 728 millones de personas de la pobreza, según estándares del Banco Mundial. En el 2015 la inflación promedio, ajustado al ingreso disponible de la población china, subió en un 7.4%. Es este tipo de ‘revolución de la producción’ que necesita Latinoamérica.

Las diferencias entre Latinoamérica y China son claras. Los métodos estadísticos modernos utilizados por las Naciones Unidas y la Organización para la Cooperación y el Desarrollo Económicos (OCDE), demuestran que más de la mitad del crecimiento del PIB per cápita es debido a la inversión fija. De este modo se explica el rápido crecimiento de China: en 2014, la inversión fija sumó un 44% del PIB. La baja inversión en Latinoamérica hace imposible lograr y mantener un crecimiento acelerado en circunstancias adversas: la inversión en Argentina equivale al 17% de su PIB, en Brasil es de un 20%, Venezuela un 22%. Ecuador, sin embargo, tiene un nivel bastante más alto, sumando un 28% de su PIB.

El contraste es aún mayor si se toma en cuenta la devaluación del capital. El ahorro neto, disponible para mayor inversión, suma un total del 32% del ingreso bruto de China, mientras que en Argentina es un 7% y en Brasil es un 5%. Algunos países, como Bolivia y Ecuador, han logrado un 15% pero esto sigue siendo inferior al nivel chino. De este modo, se hace imposible el crecimiento acelerado y paquetes de estímulo anticíclicos, con estos bajos niveles de inversión fija.

La clave del ‘modelo chino’ está claro. China tiene sectores públicos y privados pero no es una ‘economía mixta’, según la definición occidental. En estas economías, domina el sector privado, mientras que la definición oficial china está marcada por un ‘posicionamiento dominante del sector público.’

El modelo de China también se puede expresar en la terminología occidental por los conceptos de Keynes: ‘El deber de ordenar el volumen actual de inversión no puede dejarse en manos privadas,’ es necesario apuntar hacia un ‘nivel de inversión socialmente controlado’, lo cual requiere una ‘socialización un tanto comprensiva de la inversión’.

El ‘modelo chino’ no eliminó el sector privado, sino que hizo de la inversión estatal, su fuerza productiva principal, con el sector privado también beneficiado con el crecimiento. La habilidad de China de mantener un sector estatal que no administre la economía pero que sea suficientemente grande como para mantener y controlar los niveles de inversión económica explica el éxito de China. En este modelo económico, que no elimina el sector privado pero que está guiado por altos niveles de inversión pública, el que explica el rápido crecimiento de China y lo diferencia del modelo de la mayoria de paises latinoamericanos.

Por lo tanto, para el logro del éxito económico, el ejemplo chino de la ‘revolución de producción’ debería reemplazar la ‘revolución de distribución’, la cual, y con justa causa, enorgullece a la izquierda latinoamericana.

John Ross es catedrático emérito en el Instituto Chongyang de Estudios Financieros, en la Universidad Renmin de China en Beijing.

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Este contenido ha sido publicado originalmente por teleSUR bajo la siguiente dirección:
 http://www.telesurtv.net/opinion/Que-puede-aprender-America-Latina-del-crecimiento-economico-de-China-20160127-0041.html.