Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Is Ireland experiencing a boom?

By Michael Burke

The economy in the Republic of Ireland expanded by 1.5% in the 2nd quarter and by 6.5% from the same period in 2013. This leaves the economy well below its previous level but is actually much stronger than the annual growth rates in the same period in Britain’s ‘boom’, of 0.9% and 3.2%.
For a number of decades the Irish economy has grown more rapidly than the British economy and per capita GDP is higher in the Irish Republic. According to the OECD this is true if constant prices and Purchasing Power Parities are used, or whether current levels are used for both.

This relative outperformance is likely to continue in the future. This is because the Irish economy is more thoroughly integrated into the world economy (or, put in classic terms, it has a higher participation in the international division of labour). This is true even taking into account the effect of multi-national corporations booking profits in Ireland based on production that takes place elsewhere.

The British economy too has its own mechanisms for facilitating international tax avoidance, including the network of overseas territories Guernsey, Jersey, Gibraltar, BVI and so on.
Once this ‘soufflĂ© effect’ is removed it is clear that the export of goods from Ireland is a vastly greater proportion of GDP than are British exports. This, combined with the tendency for an increase in the international division of labour, which is expressed as the faster growth of world trade than domestic GDP, means that the Irish economy is set to grow faster than Britain over the longer term.
But faster growth than Britain is a poor yard-stick. It is utterly foolish of British supporters of austerity to gloat over the relatively better performance of the British economy than the French economy. Declining prosperity elsewhere does not constitute economic well-being here.

Similarly, the focus should be on what is the maximum sustainable growth rate for the Irish economy and the mechanisms to achieve that. In light of the Irish economy’s degree of integration into the world economy, the current rebound in Irish GDP falls well short of what is possible or desirable.

A version of the article below first appeared on Irish Left Review under the title Investment Remains the Key to a Real Recovery.


The Irish recession which began in the final quarter of 2007 is the most severe in the history of the state. GDP contracted by 12.1% in a little over two years ending in the 4th quarter of 2009. That slump is not over. The latest data for second quarter of 2014 show that the economy still remains 3.4% below its pre-recession peak. In effect it is likely to take 5 years or more simply to recover the output that was lost in in the slump.

Even then, the economy will remain way below its previous trend rate of growth. This is illustrated in Fig 1 below, which shows real GDP and real GNP from 1997 to the present. The average annual growth rate of the Irish economy from 1997 to 2007 was approximately 6%. Maintaining the trend rate of growth would have led the economy to be approximately 50% larger than it is currently, and there is a danger that this potential is lost permanently.

Fig.1 Medium-Term GDP & GNP

The causes of the slump are very clear. Over the entire period of the crisis the fall in investment more than accounts for the entirety of the decline in aggregate measures of output, either GDP or GNP. GDP in the 2nd quarter of 2014 is still €6.6bn below its late 2007 peak. Investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation, GFCF) is €14.4bn below its peak. There are other components of GDP which have also failed to recover, notably personal consumption and government expenditure. But even taken together, their combined fall of €10.1bn is less than the fall in investment. The only component of GDP which has risen is net exports. The change in components of GDP is shown in Fig.2 below.

Fig.2 GDP & Components In the Slump
Source: CSO

This data belies the notion that there is an ‘export-led recovery’ under way. Recorded net exports have grown very strongly, up €30.5bn over the period. But only one quarter of this or €7.4bn is a rise in the export of goods. A much larger statistical contribution has arisen from the decline in the imports of goods, down €14.6bn. As both investment and consumption have fallen, this simply suggests that both firms and households have been priced out of world markets by reduced purchasing power. The remainder of the rise in net exports is derived from international trade in services. These are particularly prone to the tax-induced flow of funds that plague the Irish economy and completely distort the economic data. There is little benefit from attempting to unravel them.
More importantly, it is clear that exports have not led a broad-based recovery at all. All the main domestic indicators of activity, consumption, government spending and investment are still far below their pre-recession peaks.

The recovery

The low-point for the Irish economy was reached in the 4th quarter of 2009. There is not yet a recovery. But there is a rebound from that low-point, which has not always made smooth progress. Every year since 2009 has seen at least one quarter of economic contraction. It is hoped that 2014 will be different.

One reason for this volatility in the data is the activity of multinational corporations. For example one large order for aircraft, none of which are produced in Ireland but are booked in this jurisdiction, can provide a large one-off boost to GFCF and to GDP.

The engine of the recovery is also clear if we take the inflection point from the 4th quarter of 2009 to the most recent data. This is shown in Fig.3 below.

Fig. 3 Change in GDP & Components in the recovery
Source: CSO

The rebound in both GDP and GNP since the end-2009 low-point is driven solely by the rise in net exports. Of the €24bn rise in net exports over that period just €8bn is a rise in the net export of goods.
Otherwise there has been no improvement in the other components of GDP even during this phase. Personal consumption and government expenditures have fall by a combined €2bn. Again, this is exceed by the fall in investment, down €2.7bn since the end of 2009.

The motor force of the Irish economic slump has been the fall in fixed investment. Ireland’s openness to the world economy (its high degree of participation in the international division of labour) provides a real benefit to the economy, even if that is vastly overstated in the official data.

But for exports to lead the economy investment must grow. Otherwise Irish goods (and genuine services) become priced out of world markets. The investment strike in Ireland has not ended. Until it does there can be no confidence in the sustainability of any eventual recovery.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Austerity is on course to be a lot worse

By Michael Burke

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has produced its latest assessment of the economic crisis and its impact on government finances (pdf here). In common with the UK Treasury the OBR tends to underestimate the impact of austerity policies and consequently has a persistently over-optimistic outlook for the British economy. This is no surprise as the OBR uses the Treasury economic model.
Even so the detailed analysis by the OBR is very valuable as it reflects official thinking on the economy and on economic policy. This view will continue to be shared by the OBR and Treasury beyond the next election.

A key conclusion of the latest report is the assessment that austerity policies are set to continue for some time to come. The chart below shows the OBR’s assessment of the austerity policies and their composition from 2008/09 with projections until 2018/19. The policy measures of government spending cuts and tax change changes are expressed as a percentage of GDP.

Source: OBR

The OBR persists in projecting the effects of Labour policy over the entire period even though the Coalition has been in office since May 2010. Labour’s austerity measures (announced by Alistair Darling in March 2010) are shown in purple. The additional measures introduced by the Coalition in June 2010 are shown in green. The further measures after that time (beginning with the Austumn Statement in 2010 and March 2011 Budget) are shown in orange.

Currently we are approximately midway through the Financial Year 2014/2015, when the fiscal tightening rises from 5.1% of GDP to 5.6% of GDP. So the current fiscal tightening is approxumately 5.35% of GDP. By 2018/19 the OBR projects the entire austerity policy will reach 10.3% per annum.
In effect we are currently only half way through the austerity programme.

At the TUC, Geoff Tily points out that that the entire OBR analysis is based on an incorrect framework (adopted from the Treasury). This framework assumes that austerity reduces the deficit while doing little damage to the economy. Yet the OBR’s own data show this assumption is incorrect.

The data below is extracted from the OBR’s Chart 1.3 in its latest report. It shows the level of Total Managed Expenditure versus Current Receipts as a proportion of GDP during the entire period of the crisis to date.

Fig.2  Expenditure & Receipts, % GDP
Source: OBR

Since FY 2008/09 expenditure has fallen by just 0.6% while receipts have also fallen by 0.2% of GDP. The OBR forecasts that this will improve imminently, but forecasts of that type have been made ever since the OBR was established. The latest data for the current Financial Year actually show the deficit widening once more. The effect of austerity policies is to produce the weakest recovery on record while the reduction in the deficit has been minuscule. If 5% or more fiscal tightening has been required to reduce the deficit by just 0.4%, the OBR projections of further policy measures shown in Fig. 1 are likely to be a significant underestimate.

A continuation of austerity policies is unlikely to produce a different outcome. Unless there is a radical break with OBR/Treasury thinking, austerity is set to get a lot worse.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Austerity killed off improving productivity. Investment is needed to revive it

By Michael Burke

Supporters of government austerity measures have been quick to claim that recent revisions to GDP growth show a much shallower recession and much stronger recovery than previously thought. These claims are factually incorrect. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) accurately summarised the effect of its revisions as follows,

“Although the downturn in 2008-2009 was shallower than previously estimated and subsequent growth stronger, the broad picture of the economy is unaltered. It remains the case that the UK experienced the deepest recession since ONS records began in 1948 and the subsequent recovery has also been the slowest.”

The current situation for the British economy is characterised by an exceptionally weak recovery. The actual increase in output is minimal, much worse than any previous recovery. The very slow improvement in GDP is a product of more people working longer hours for less pay.

In the most recent reassessment of the data, the ONS noted the continuing exceptional crisis of productivity (the amount produced per hour of work). This is shown in Fig.1 below. The dotted line shows the previous trend growth in productivity. The unbroken light blue line shows the previous ONS data and the dark blue line shows the most recent revision.

Fig.1 Output Per Hour and trend
Source: ONS

It should be noted that productivity had been growing very moderately from the end of 2009 until the Coalition’s austerity policies began to take effect at the beginning of 2011. There has been no recovery since.

This is far worse than any previous recovery, as shown in Fig.2 . It is unprecedented in Britain for productivity to be lower than the pre-recession peak 6 years previously. But that is what the previous estimate (unbroken black line) shows. The more recent revision (broken black line) is slightly better but is unlikely to alter the main trend.

Fig.2 Output Per Hour, comparisons with previous recovery periods
Source: ONS

In the average of previous recessions and recoveries, productivity was 16.3% higher 6 years after the recession began. The complete data for the current slump is yet to be published. But if it is still below the pre-recession level (as seems likely) then the gap between the current trend in produtivity and the recovery from previous recessions could be in the order of 17% or 18%. There is also no sign of improvement.

If output per hour does not increase it is exceptionally difficult for average pay to increase. That would require a sharp rise in labour’s share of output, which is extremely rare when output is not expanding. This is the cause of the wage crisis in the British economy.

In a market economy there are also great difficulties in raising social expenditure when there is no growth in productivity. In any event is impossible to both raise wages and increase spending in education, health, transport, housing and so on if there is no increase in output per hour.

The cause of the productivity crisis is no puzzle. Just as a heavy load can be lifted much more quickly by machinery than by hand, productivity increases with the amount and sophistication of the capital machinery that is used. Cutting back on that equipment, by refusing to invest and/or letting existing machinery dilapidate will reduce output per hour. This is what has happened in Britain and many other western economies.

The argument that all that is required is increased demand is false. The final up-to-date data for the British economy will certainly show that demand, both household and government consumption have recovered since the recession. But investment has not. Increasing consumption by reducing investment is the road to impoverishment.

Private firms do not exist to satisfy demand, but to accumulate profits. Currently they remain uncertain about profits, and there is growing opposition to increased private investment.

But government has no such constraints. It can invest because the investment is necessary and reap returns not available to the private sector in the form of increased tax revenues and lower social security payments. State-led investment is needed before the crisis can be ended.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Austerity is the cause of the crisis in France. Investment can end it

By Michael Burke

The French economy is in a grave crisis, much worse even than the sluggish growth of the OECD countries and almost as bad as Britain. In the 6 years since the beginning of the crisis the OECD economy as a whole has grown by just 4.5%. Over the same period the French economy has grown by just 1.2%. This is closer to the British economy, which was still 0.6% lower than when the recession began. The data is shown in Fig. 1 below.

Fig.1 Real GDP in OECD, Britain and France, Q1 2008 to Q1 2014
Source: OECD

Supporters of the Tory government’s austerity policy have bizarrely attempted to congratulate themselves on the recovery in Britain as the following quarter finally saw the British economy exceed is previous peak. But 0.2% growth in over 6 years is the worst performance since the Great Depression.

Similarly, there is an absurd attempt to portray the situation positively in Britain because it is better than the crisis in France. This is both factually incorrect (in the 2nd quarter of 2014 the French economy was 1.2% above its pre-recession peak) and meaningless. However bad the sitation in France, this would make no-one in Britain better off.

Investment Strike

In reality, the cause of the crisis in France has the same source as the crisis in the OECD as a whole and in the British economy. It is the fall in productive investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) which accounts for both the severity of the initial recession and the prolonged character of the following stagnation.

The various trajectories of each economy have also been determined primarily by the chages in investment (GFCF). Initially the crisis in France was much less severe than the in the OECD as a whole because the fall in investment was less sharp. By contrast, investment fell further in Britain and the recession was sharper than in either France or the OECD. However, the recovery in French investment stalled in mid-2012 almost immediately after Hollande won the Presidential eelction and began to apply austerity policies.

By contrast, OECD investment has been painfully slow to recover. But it has been on an upward trend since the 3rd quarter of 2009, which accounts for the steady crawl out of recession. In Britain the ludicrous zig-zags of government austerity policy killed off a weak recovery in 2010. But large government subsidies to reflate a housing bubble have had the effect of increasing consumption and house building from its all-time low from the end of 2012. These trends are show in Fig. 2 below.

Fig.2 Real GFCF in OECD, France, UK, Q1 2008 to Q2 2014
Source: OECD

The French Crisis

There are two key indicators of the role of the slump in investment as the cause of economic crisis in France. These are the performance of investment relative to other components of the national accounts and investment relative to its previous trend.

Investment in France began falling once more when the Hollande government began implementing austerity policies. Prior to that point, the right-wing Sarkozy administration had talked about the need for austerity, but was generally keeping these measures in reserve in the hope of getting re-elected (similar to the Tory government from mid-2012 onwards, with a similar lack of success likely).

Fig.3 below shows the real performance of France’s GDP and its components from the beginning of the crisis to the 2nd quarter of 2014. In aggregate GDP is almost €21bn higher than it was in the 1st quarter of 2008. Investment (GFCF) is the only component of GDP which remains significantly below its pre-crisis level. Consumption by both the private sector and of government is higher. The problem of the French economy is not primarily a crisis of ‘aggregate demand’. It is investment, not consumption which is the brake on a genuine recovery.

Private consumption is over €31bn higher and government consumption is strongest of all at over €44bn higher. This also belies the idea that austerity is aimed at reducing government spending. Pro-business parties are far less concerned about increasing government spending if this is directed towards consumption. They are opposed to an increase in government investment, which interferes with the dominant role of the private sector in the ownership of the means of production. Despite much talk about the ‘bloated state sector’ in France government investment is actually a smaller proportion of the total than in the Anglo-Saxon countries of the US and UK (just 15.3% of the total in the most recent 2011 data).

Investment is now €37.5bn lower than its pre-crisis peak. It has fallen from 20.4% of GDP to 18.2%. Only net exports are also negative, but the decline is much less significant with a fall of just €2.6bn. The performance of real GDP and its components is shown below.

Fig. 3 France Real GDP & Components, Q1 2008 to Q2 2014
Source: OECD

The trend decline in investment is equally stark. Investment has fallen by 9.9% in a little over 6 years since the crisis began. In the comparable period prior to the crisis investment had expanded by 18.9%. If this prior trend growth rate of investment had been maintained, it would now be €109bn higher. This would directly add 6% to GDP even before any productivity effects from higher investment are taken into account. GDP and the investment trend are shown in the Fig. 4 below.

Fig.4 Real GDP & GFCF Trend, Q3 2000 to Q2 2014
Source: OECD

The resources for investment

If there were no idle resources in the economy it would be necessary to constrain consumption in order to finance investment. But that is not the case currently. In common with most OECD economies (including Britain) the profits of French firms have been recovering.

In nominal terms the profit level (Gross Operating Surplus) peaked at €668bn in 2008. But after a slump in 2009 profits have turned slowly higher and finally recovered (in nominal terms, not taking account of inflation) to €674bn in 2013. But investment has continued to fall and is now €17bn lower than in 2008. The investment ratio (investment as a proportion of profits) has therefore declined.

This is the culmination of a long-term trend. Fig.5 below shows the nominal level of profits and the investment for the French economy over the last 40 years. At the beginning of the period the investment ratio was approximately two-thirds. In 2013 investment was €395bn compared to profits of €674bn, an investment ratio of just 58.6%. Simply restoring the former investment ratio would increase the level of investment by approximately €40bn. Instead, the level of uninvested profits continues to grow.

Fig.5 France Profits & Investment, 1974 to 2013, €bn
Source: OECD

France is not in crisis because of the Euro. The main features of the crisis are the same as in Britain, which maintains its own currency. Nor is it true that the crisis of the French economy is caused by a bloated state sector. On the contrary, government investment as a proportion of total investment is now lower in France than in either the US or UK.

This is actually a key part of the problem. The crisis is accounted for by the fall in investment. The private sector is on an investment strike. This is exacerbated by the cuts in the government’s own level of investment.
The resources exist to resolve the crisis throught state-led investment. This can be funded by using uninvested profits of the private sector. A certain proportion of this can be done indirectly via government borrowing, especially as borrowing costs for 10 years are just 1.25%. It can also be done directly, directing the state-owned enterprises and the the commercial banks to increase investment, as well as other measures.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Three charts to explain why most people are getting poorer

By Michael Burke

Most people in Britain are getting poorer. For obvious reasons, the government and supporters of austerity would prefer not to discuss this fact.

Yet in the strained language of the Labour right, there has also been a clamour for Ed Miliband to ‘change the narrative’ on the economy by no longer talking about the cost of living crisis. This is based on the completely false notion that that the economic recovery under way will inevitably produce higher living standards. This fails to understand the content and purpose of current economic policy. It is also based on a refusal to face facts.

Some of the key facts on the cost of living crisis are glaringly obvious. The chart below shows the change in regular average pay as well as the change in total pay including bonuses. Also included is the change in consumer price inflation.

Chart 1. Change in regular pay, pay including bonuses and CPI inflation, %
Source: ONS

Under four years of the Tory-led Coalition, regular pay has fallen by 5.25%. This real decline in pay is understated in two ways. The first is that the CPI is a narrow measure of prices. In particular it excludes housing costs. Broader measures of inflation have tended to be higher over the last four years. In addition, only the pay of employees is captured by these average wage data. Anyone forced to work in self-employment, casual or other work without a regualr wage is not included in the data. These categories, along with part-time workers, have formed the bulk of the jobs growth over the last period, which has been a key factor in depressing wages generally. A broader, more accuarate picture of average wages would show a picture that is much worse.

It also seems as if the fall in living standards on this measure is unprecedented. The chart below is via Ed Conway, economics editor of Sky TV, who regularly provides very useful economic data. It shows the cumulative fall in real wages over a 5-year period.

Chart 2. Cumulative fall in real wages over a 5-Year Period, % Change

This shows real wages contracting by 7.6% over that time period. Real wages have not fallen so sharply since records began in 1864, not even in the Great Depression of the 1930s. As we have already seen, there is also no end in sight. Wages continue to fall behind inflation.

This is the key fact which underpins the ongoing cost of living crisis. But it is not confined to the issue of wages. Of a total British population of 64 million on latest estimates, only 30.6 million are in work. The rest, the majority of the population, are mainly comprised of young people, the elderly, the unemployed and economically inactive. They too have tended to experience a fall in living standards as social security entitlements and public services have been cut. They are often at the sharpest end of the cost of living crisis.

Austerity At Work

An obvious question arises, if the economy is recovering in real terms how is it that real wages have fallen so sharply? The answer is twofold. First, the population is growing, so that GDP per capita remains significantly below its 2008 level, before the recession.

But the content of austerity is to transfer incomes from labour and the poor (such as wages, or the benefits of social security as well as public spending) to capital and the rich (in the form of profits, tax breaks, tax cuts, privatisations, and so on). The aim is not to lead to stagnation, which is a consequence of the investment strike by firms. The aim of austerity policy is to boost the returns to capital. Under conditions of stagnation, this can only be achieved by reducing wages and the transfer payments to workers and the poor.

This can be seen directly even in the form of incomes and prosperity. The chart below is via Chris Williamson, chief economic at economic survey and analysis firm Markit. It shows expectations of household finances over the next 12 months by income bracket. In effect, the higher income households tend to be more optimistic on average about their living standards, while the poorer are more pessimistic. The poor are getting poorer. Among the rich, the lion’s share of the recovery is claimed by the ultra-wealthy, the owners of capital, landlords and so on.

Chart 3. Household incomes and optimism on household finances

The Tory Party sees no reason to change these trends of the economic policy that led to them. They would carry out more of the same, renewing the austerity offensive that has been soft-pedalled ever since the poll ratings plummeted in 2012.

Labour is currently debating economic policy. Evidently, it would be wholly counterproductive to abandon the focus on the cost of living crisis now, which is already the deepest on record and is continuing. Yet the scale of this crisis also means that any policy is appropriate to the magnitude of the crisis. SEB has previously outlined some of the measures that could be taken. All proposals and policies need to be assessed in light of the extremely grave economic crisis that Labour will inherit in 2015.