Pressing On Both Sides of the See-Saw

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The slump in the Irish economy continues to be driven by the collapse in investment. The fall in investment more than accounts for the entire contraction in the economy during the recession.

The chart below shows the annual totals for both GDP and investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation, GFCF) versus the peak in 2008. The worst GDP outcome was in 2010 when it was €12.7 billion below the 2008 peak. But by 2013 it was still €9.5 billion lower. Not much sign of genuine recovery.

Investment has fared even worse. It carried on falling even after GDP had stabilised. The low-point was in 2012, when investment was €16.6 billion below the previous high-point. But in 2013 it was still €15.9 billion lower.

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Over the 6 years of the slump GDP has fallen by 9.6%. Investment has fallen by 47%. As a result, investment as a proportion of GDP has fallen from 20.8% to 12.1%. Since the level of investment is decisive for the long-term productivity of any economy, a falling rate of investment will hurt growth over a prolonged period.

The relative weakness of investment by firms in Ireland is shown in the OECD chart below. Over a prolonged period leading up to the crisis private firms (Private Non-Financial Corporations, or PNFCs) operating in Ireland invested much less than firms in the other industrialised countries.

This weakness has been further exacerbated by the crisis. Since 2008 firms’ profits have actually risen in cash terms, by €6.7 billion. But on the same basis, investment in transport equipment and other equipment have both fallen by €1 billion, road building and other construction apart from homes have slumped by €5.4 billion.

Private Non-Financial Corporations Investment:  Decade Averages

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One of the key factors which has worsened the crisis is that successive governments have cut the state’s own level of investment. On the same cash basis, government has cut its investment by €7.6 billion. This was not always the case. Previously, when the economy was growing rapidly government had a higher level of investment than in the other industrialised economies, as shown in the chart below.

This is the see-saw of the Irish economy: very low levels of private firms’ investment and relatively high levels of government investment. The policy of austerity is pushing down on both ends of the see-saw at once. As a result the economy is cracking.

General Government Investment: Decade Averages

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This level of state investment was a key factor in the genuine growth of the Irish economy, much faster than most other industrialised countries over the same period. On past form, the wait for firms to invest might be a very long one.

As a minimum, in order to achieve both a real sustainable recovery and to prevent further declines in GDP, the government should restore its own level of investment. It should also use all available mechanisms in order to increase investment by deploying the resources of the private sector, which would naturally include taxation.

 

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