Friday, 21 November 2014

What do Britain’s private sector firms contribute?

By Michael Burke

The main factors that account for economic growth are increases in the workforce or in the amount of productive capital in the economy. A far smaller contribution is made by improvement in productivity as a result of innovation, which is known as Total Factor Productivity.

Since mid-2009 the British economy has grown. But this is wholly accounted for by growth in the workforce, which made up of both an increase in the number of people in work and in the number of hours they work. As a result the average person in work cannot experience any improvement in living standards as economic growth is simply made up of more people working longer hours. Worse, those on very high pay, senior executives and shareholders, have claimed any benefits of that moderate growth in the British economy. Average real pay continues to decline.

The missing element in Osborne's so-called recovery has been growth in productive investment. The ONS chart below shows the level of Net Fixed Capital Formation in the British economy from 1999 to 2013 as a proportion of GDP. Usually Gross Fixed Capital Formation (GFCF) is the main indicator of investment that is discussed. But Net Fixed Capital Formation deducts the capital consumed in the production process itself. While GFCF includes replacement of machine tools, or software and repairs to a factory, NFCF is a measure of only the net addition to new machine tools, software or factories after any replacements have been deducted.

NFCF therefore measures the addition to the accumulated stock of capital. (Unfortunately it also mixes together productive capital, such as machinery, with unproductive capital such as housing, but this failing cannot be addressed in this piece). The chart also shows the contribution to NFCF from each sector, non-financial firms, financial firms, government and households.

Fig. 1 Net Fixed Capital Formation, % GDP
Source: ONS

The data is worth examining in detail. The net contribution of financial firms can be disregarded as it is negligible in all cases. But it is also clear that the contribution of non-financial corporations (NFCs), i.e. private companies, has been far from overwhelming.

Table 1. Contributions to Growth in Net Capital Stock by Sector, % GDP
Source: ONS

In most years before the crisis the net contribution from non-financial firms was matched or surpassed by the contribution from households (and the non-profit sector NIPISH). The strongest year for the net growth in the capital stock was 2004, when the greater role was played by government and non-financial firms contributed just one quarter of the total growth. But this increase in government spending encouraged the private sector and the following year saw an increase in the contribution to NFCF by private firms. But from that point onwards until 2009 government NFCF was once again reduced and in turn, with one year time lag, companies duly cut their own level of investment. With a time lag, companies also followed when government increased its investment again after 2008. Yet non-financial firms never contributed as much as half of the net growth in the capital stock in any year over the period.

Outlook

The coalition government has been claiming that it has overseen a revival of the British economy, including business investment. But the total proportion of NFCF is barely changed from the crisis year of 2008, along with the contribution from non-financial firms. In reality, it was the modest increase in government net investment in 2009 which rescued the economy and has been responsible for well over half the growth in net investment since. Non-financial firms have contributed less than a third of the NFCF over the same period. Yet the Coalition cut the level of investment it inherited from Labour and has only increased it modestly to avoid the political consequences of a renewed recession.

Over the longer-term Britain has a very low level of net capital formation, less than 2.5% of GDP at its recent high-point, which condemns the economy to slow growth. Even among the Western economies that have experienced a decline in growth rates over the medium term, Britain has had one of the lower levels of NFCF. It is notable too that the US has among the weaker levels of net investment growth since 2006, which belies notions about a US industrial renaissance.


Fig. 2 Net Fixed Capital Formation in Selected Economies, % GDP
Source: ONS


Unfortunately, the Thatcherite and Reaganite notion of the ‘state getting out of the way of the private sector’ still dominates thinking in most Western economies. This turns reality on its head. Private firms are an important but minor player in the growth of the net stock of capital. They are led by the activity of the government. This was decisive during the crisis and there is no prospect of a return even to previous levels of British growth if it is mainly dependent on the contribution of private firms. The austerity consensus remains that government must cut back while we await the decision of private firms to increase their investment. This will condemn the economy to prolonged stagnation.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

British firms’ cash hoard is over £500bn

By Michael Burke

The source of the current crisis is the unwillingness of private firms to invest. Instead, they are hoarding cash that could otherwise be invested. The latest data shows that this cash hoard stood at £501.9 billion at the end of 2013. It has almost certainly risen since.

The latest ‘flow of funds’ data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) provide comprehensive data for the financial flows between each sector of the economy. They show how the cash mountain has been created. Via the banks, these data show how the incomes of firms (mainly profits) or of individuals (mainly wages) can become savings and may be used for investment.

If a capitalist economy is functioning in the textbook manner, firms will generate profits which they use for their own investment. Through bank borrowing they will also be able to use the savings of private individuals to supplement that investment. It is the supposedly efficient and large-scale way that this takes place that gives the capitalist economy its particular power, and the pre-eminence of the private sector within that, including the banks.

But this is not what is happening in the British economy. The ONS chart below shows the savings and investment levels private non-financial firms (all private corporations excluding banks, insurers and so on, or PNFCs). These are shown from 1997 onwards as a proportion of GDP.

Fig.1 Net lending and investment of PNFCs as a proportion of GDP 
Source: ONS

Over a prolonged period from 2001 to 2013 private firms in Britain have been net savers. Far from borrowing from another sector such as households (or from overseas, or government), private firms have been saving not borrowing. The peak level of this net saving was 4.3% of GDP in 2011. The recent high-point for firms’ borrowing was a not very high level of 2.8% of GDP in 2000. The difference between those two levels is 7.1% of GDP. This is significantly greater than the actual annual contraction in output during the recession and entirely accounts for it.

At the same time private firms have been cutting their levels of investment. Firms’ productive investment (Gross capital formation) peaked at 12.4% of GDP in 1998. It fell to 7% at the low-point of the recession in 2009, and the rebound since has only been to 9.2% of GDP. This is actually below the level of capital consumption in the economy (the capital consumed in the course of production). As a result British firms are not net producers of capital.

It is the savings of private frims which have produced the cash mountain. The growth of the cash hoard is shown in Fig.2 below both in terms of billions of pounds and in propprtion to GDP.

Fig.2 The cash hoard of British firms

A number of reasons have been advanced for the growth in the cash mountain, including increasing complexity of global supply chains, greater uncertainty and other factors. They are generally unconvincing, not least because the growth in the cash hoard has coincided with both record shareholder returns and senior management rewards.

Companies in Britain and in the Western economies generally are content to retain or even increase high debt levels in order to fund share buybacks and extraordinary boardroom pay. They are not prepared to invest even their own profits, much less borrow to invest.

The cash hoard is directly related to profitability. Firms will not invest while they do not anticipate sufficent returns on that investment. As a result, the cash hoard will grow until they do.

Yet it is clear that the idea that ‘there is no money left’ for investment is false. The money is simply in the hands of those who refuse to invest it. What is required are measures that will wrest it from them in order to fund investment.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

There is a ‘magic money tree’ – it’s investment

By Michael Burke

Supporters of austerity have long argued that there is no viable alternative because of persistent government deficits and rising debt. David Cameron put it starkly arguing that ‘there is no magic money tree’.

However these assertions contain two important fallacies. First, it is evident that, if government is increasingly indebted it must be the case that the private sector is also an increasing owner of that government debt- government cannot be a net debtor to itself. Therefore rising government debt represents a transfer of incomes, from the public sector to the private sector.

Secondly, economies can grow. Otherwise human society would still be in its most primitive phase. Therefore there is no fixed amount of output in the economy, or the monetary denominator of that output.

IMF answer

The question posed is therefore, how can a cash-strapped government grow the economy and improve its own fiscal position? The IMF has arrived at an answer. In the latest widely-read World Economic Outlook (WEO), the IMF devotes an entire chapter to the merits of public investment in infrastructure, which it defines as transport, power and other utilities and communications systems. The paper ‘Is it time for an infrastructure push? The macroeconomic effects of public investment’ can be found here (pdf).

Investment is one of the essential components of growth. Private sector investment is driven by the anticipated profit, but it has no magic wand to conjure returns from investment which the public sector does not possess It is possible for government to benefit from the returns on investment in the way that the private sector can. In fact there are additional returns on investment to the public sector that are not available to the private sector at all, in the form of increased tax revenues and lower social welfare payment from increased economic activity.
The key points of the IMF research can be summarised as follows:
  • The stock of public capital, which is mainly responsible for total infrastructure, has declined across all categories of economies over the last three decades
  • There is now a substantial shortfall in both the quantity and quality of public capital
  • There are very high returns available to the public sector from investment in infrastructure
  • In periods of low growth the immediate effect of an increase in investment in infrastructure is a return of one and half times the initial investment, which rises to three times over the medium-term
  • The positive effects of investment are larger when they are financed by debt rather than by budget-neutral cuts elsewhere
  • The positive effects are also larger when they are supported by monetary policy
  • There is little or no evidence that the government’s cost of debt increases when debt is used to fund infrastructure investment
  • In terms of what the IMF calls ‘emerging markets’ this means that the effects of investment are far higher when funded by international loans, rather than transfers from other parts of national budgets (the so-called ‘fiscal policy rule’ usually demanded under IMF country programmes).
The research paper also presents a stylised version of its results for the advanced industrialised economies in the current phase of the economic crisis. The results are shown for the change in GDP and the change in government debt as a percentage of GDP arising from a 1% increase in public infrastructure investment, in Fig.1 below (data from Fig.3.9 in WEO).

Fig. 1 Effects of a 1% GDP increase in public infrastructure investment
Source: IMF

The central estimate is that there would be an immediate increase in GDP and an immediate decrease in government debt arising from infrastructure investment, and that these accumulate over time. By the end of the period 2023 the research estimates that a 1 per cent of GDP increase in public infrastructure investment would raise GDP by 2.8 percent and that government debt would have decreased by 1.75 percent.

Although the IMF does not do so, the same logic could be applied to any investment which increases the productive capacity of the economy, most especially education. Public investment produces growth, which produces lower debt and deficits. Similarly, the IMF research does not explore the mechanisms by which this can be achieved. In those economies where there is a greater weight of public sector corporations, where firms and banks are under public control, they can be a direct conduit of increased state investment. The greater the weight of public corporations, the greater the government’s ability to both increase the level of investment and to regulate it.

What’s stopping them?

IMF research papers are often regarded as very authoritative, but they are not uncontroversial. Much earlier in the current crisis another WEO research chapter (‘Will it hurt?’) argued that austerity policies would be hugely damaging, depress growth and so prevent any significant improvement in government finances. This judgment has been demonstrated to be essentially correct.

Yet austerity has been implemented in most advanced industrialised countries. The effects have been so negative that for many this is the weakest recovery on record, government debt burdens have hardly lifted and now many commentators, the IMF included, are concerned about the prospects for a renewed slowdown.

Neither can there be any confidence that the most recent research will lead to a sharp increase in public investment. The key obstacle to that is hinted at in the IMF research paper. There are a number of references to the impact on private sector investment arising from an increase in public investment (‘crowding out’ effects), even though these are generally downplayed.

This might seem odd. As the authors note, across all types of economies the bulk of investment in infrastructure is made by the public sector. There is an infrastructure deficit and only the public sector can reasonably be expected to fill it. Furthermore, there is a widespread insistence that reducing the level of public debt and deficits must be the overriding or even sole objective of economic policy. As the IMF research shows public infrastructure not only increases GDP but also lowers government debt. Under these circumstances, the marginal impact on private investment levels ought to be immaterial.

However, the entire austerity policy has not delivered growth or improved government finances, exactly as the earlier IMF research warned. The governments continuing to pursue it, as in Britain, are not foolish. Austerity has another purpose. This is to restore the rate of profit for firms. If large scale public investment in infrastructure risks even a minimal reduction in private investment (as the IMF says is possible, but not likely under current circumstances) then it will be fiercely resisted by those firms and those acting on their behalf.

This explains why political parties who talk about growth and deficit-reduction are wedded to an austerity policy which delivers neither. It also explains why all the forces arguing for an end to austerity and for state-led investment should expect a long struggle ahead.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Productive investment has not increased, so there is no sustainable recovery

By Michael Burke

The latest GDP data showed that the British economy is a little stronger than previously thought. The economy is now 2.6% above its previous peak in the 1st quarter of 2008 and surpassed that peak in the 3rd quarter of 2013.

However, the fundamental character of the current crisis is unaltered by the revised data. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) is correct to state that, ‘The worst recession since our records began in 1948 has been followed by the weakest recovery’. The path of the current recovery is shown in Fig.1 below, an ONS chart which compares the level of GDP in previous recessions.

Fig.1 GDP levels (quarterly) from peak for previous and latest economic
Source: ONS

This very weak recovery is also confined to the services sector of the economy. All other sectors of the economy, manufacturing, production and construction remain in a slump. This is shown in Fig. 2 below, which records the change in the sectors of the economy from the beginning of the recession.

Fig. 2 GDP levels (quarterly) for output components
Source: ONS

It is clear from this chart that there was a severe ‘double-dip recession’ caused by austerity which affected the productive sectors of the economy excluding services. A number of service industries were boosted by a combination of ultra-low interest rates and specific measures adopted by the government to boost consumption. The industries to benefit included finance, and retail and business services. Far from a ‘march of the makers’ promised by Osborne, the current situation is repeat of the errors of the Lawson Boom and the ‘candy-floss economy’, on a much weaker basis. The former Tory Chancellor argued that it was immaterial that manufacturing was collapsing under Thatcherism as long as there were overseas buyers of any good or service produced in Britain (including candy floss, in reality financial services). This was before the boom turned to bust.

The disparity shown in the different sectors of the economy is a function of the great divergence in the components of GDP. All the main components of GDP have now surpassed their level when the recession began in 2008 except for investment. Household consumption, government expenditure and net exports are all higher, only investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation, GFCF) remains below its previous peak. The change in GDP and its components in the recession is shown in Fig. 3 below.

Fig.3 Change in Real GDP & components since the recession began
Source: ONS

Key parts of the service sector can grow without significant investment, at least for a period. Industry, manufacturing and construction cannot. Investment is the main brake on the economic recovery. It is not the case that the crisis is caused by a deficiency of ‘demand’. Both household and government consumption have risen but investment is still below its previous peak. Previously, the decline in business investment was mainly responsible for the decline in GDP. But that is no longer the case.

Business investment declined far more sharply than the economy as a whole, down 23% from the peak to the low-point in 2009, compared to a 65 decline for GDP. But it has now made a feeble recovery in line with GDP.

Now it is government investment which accounts for the decline in fixed investment. Even taking into account the highly seasonal variability in government spending, the current level is 15.5% below the peak. The absolute decline (not taking account of seasonal variations) is 54%. The change in real business investment and the main component of government investment (not including investment by public corporations) is shown in Fig. 4 below.

Fig.4 Real Business and Government investment, GFCF
Source: ONS

This illustrates a central plank of the austerity policy. The decline in business investment proceeded the recession, driven by a declining rate of profit. (This point ought to be wholly uncontroversial as even the mass of profits fell in nominal terms at the beginning of 2006). After the fall in profits in 2006 the level of investment in the productive sectors of the economy began to decline and then fell rapidly producing the recession. For the period which includes most of 2006 and 2007 this decline was masked by the last stages of a housing and financial bubble. The level of real investment in the productive sectors is shown in Fig.5 below.

Fig. 5 Real productive investment
Source: ONS

This important decline in the productive capacity of the economy is masked by the statistical practise of referring to Gross Fixed Capital Formation in its entirety, which includes both productive investment and other large items such as residential investment and the transaction costs of investment in buildings, including estate agents, surveyors and the like. While these may be necessary and can provide a social good, they do not increase the productive capacity of the economy.

None of the productive sectors has yet seen a recovery in the level of investment from their peak level. Investment in offices and factories is the largest component and is 16.4% below its previous peak, a fall of £23.1bn.

There is therefore no ‘puzzle’ at all to the crisis of productivity in the British economy. The productive capacity of the economy is not growing and may even be declining once capital consumption and real depreciation are taken into account. If more labour is deployed, which is the case currently, output can increase. But if the productive capital of the economy is stagnating or even contracting, then this can only be reducing average output per hour. This is the underlying cause of the crisis of living standards and of real pay. Workers are working longer in less productive ways and so are being paid less.

The austerity policy includes a deep cut in government investment with the false assertion that the private sector will fill the gap. Evidently this has not occurred. The fact is that the fall in government investment is now the largest single impediment to recovery. Given the interrelationship between government and the private sector, this will have a depressing effect on private sector investment. The reverse is also true. A large increase in government investment would lead the whole economy to a sustainable recovery.