Crisis remains an investment crisis

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This article appeared originally on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Monday, March 7th

investPrior to the recent G20 meeting leading international economic bodies such as the IMF and the OECD made tentative calls for increased investment, although this was often confused with increased spending. This is a belated or partial recognition of the real source of the crisis in the advanced industrialised countries. In terms of actual changes to policy it seems to have made no impact at the G20 whatsoever.

As the world economy is once more slowing and there are again a series of spurious explanations offered for this, it is worth revisiting the actual causes of the ongoing crisis which first became widely apparent in 2007. In this piece the advanced industrialised countries as a whole will be the reference point, using aggregate data for the OECD. But each individual economy within the OECD simply provides its own unique combination of these common factors, including Britain.

If one word can summarise the entire crisis in the advanced industrialised countries it is: Investment. The fall in Investment preceded the fall in GDP. It was also the largest component of the fall in GDP and it is the sole component which has failed to recover.

These points are illustrated in Fig.1 below, which shows real GDP, Final Consumption and Investment (Gross Fixed capital Formation, GFCF) for the OECD as a whole, using US$ Purchasing Power Parities.

Fig.1
SEB 20160307 Fig 1

Investment (GFCF) first fell in the OECD in 2008. Both GDP and Final Consumption Expenditure continued to increase and only fell for the first time in 2009. Falling Investment caused the crisis. On a full-year basis the total decline in Investment was 13% from its pre-recession high to the low-point of the recession in 2009. By comparison GDP fell by 3.5% and Consumption fell by 0.3%. The fall in Investment was far greater in proportional terms than GDP or Consumption.

Even though Investment is a far smaller proportion of GDP than Consumption in the OECD, its decline in monetary terms was far greater. From the pre-recession peak to the low-point of the recession Investment fell by US$1.3 trillion (in PPP terms). Consumption fell by US$ 0.03 trillion, or US$30bn, and barely constitutes a blip in the chart above. The fall in Investment was the largest component of the crisis.

Since the trough of the recession in 2009 real GDP has recovered by US$3.95 trillion. In 2014 GDP was US.55 trillion larger than its peak in 2008. Consumption is stronger. It has increased by US$2.17 trillion since 2009 and is now US$2.26 trillion above its pre-recession peak. By contrast Investment has recovered by only US.94 trillion from 2009 to 2014 and it remains US.37 trillion below its 2007 peak, or US$366 billion. The economic crisis in the OECD remains an investment crisis.

Consumption requires Investment
Economics should be the study and practise of achieving the greatest sustainable material well-being of the whole of society. For most of humanity this still revolves around the struggle for food, shelter and clothing. In the advanced industrialised countries, the required quality of those necessities has increased alongside the desire for good health services, education, welfare, access to recreation and leisure, and so on. Unfortunately, for material reasons a great deal of confusion surrounds that goal and the methods to achieve it.

The (inverted Say’s Law) argument that increased Consumption will lead to increased Investment has evidently not materialised in the current crisis. As noted above, Consumption has increased but Investment has not. This was also the case in the Long Depression at the end of the 19th century as well as in the Great Depression of the 1930s. In both cases Investment continued to stagnate or fall despite a rise in Consumption. Currently we are in a phase of what Marx called the hoarding of capital. Keynes used the terms liquidity preference.

The reason is simple. The advanced industrialised countries are capitalist economies. Capitalism does not exist to satisfy human needs, or the desire for material well-being. It is not driven by ‘demand’. It is driven by profit. Under circumstances where Consumption has recovered, but profitability, or anticipated profitability has not, then Investment will not increase. This characterises the current situation in the OECD economies.

All Consumption of any good or service must be preceded by its production. Any attempt to increase Consumption without increased production simply leads to the creation of debt, a claim on future production. It is unsustainable. The current downturn in the British economy arises because household debt and overseas indebtedness have both increased to unsustainable levels.

There are two principal methods of increasing production. One is to just get more people into work and/or make them work longer hours for less, or some combination of the two. The other is to increase the productivity of labour through increased Investment, either in the amount or quality of the means of production or through the increased skills of the workforce. The former cannot lead to rising living standards as it relies on working longer for less, and is the path Britain has chosen over the past period. The second method, the increased productivity of labour requires Investment.

Therefore, in order to raise living standards and to sustainably improve both the quality and quantity of goods and services generally available (including housing, health care, education, welfare and so on), it is necessary to increase Investment. Increased Consumption first requires increased Investment.

Levels, ratios and proportions
The Consumption of goods and services is a measure of the material well-being of the population. Yet, there are two main uses of all output, it can either be consumed or invested. So, if it were possible to sustainably increase the level of Consumption by reducing the proportion of the economy directed to Investment and increasing the proportion devoted to Consumption, then the level of Investment should be reduced to a minimum or even zero. In reality, the opposite is the case. The greater the proportion of the economy devoted to Investment, the faster the rise in sustainable Consumption.

Taking just the OECD data cited above, in the period from 2007 to 2014 investment as a proportion of GDP fell to 20.5% from 22.5% in the period 2000 to 2007. Consequently the proportion of GDP devoted to Consumption rose. Yet the level of Consumption increased by a cumulative 18.6% in the earlier period and has increased by just 6.4% in the same 7-period since the recession. The level of Consumption rose more rapidly when it was a smaller proportion of GDP.

This seems to be paradox, in that a falling proportion of Consumption in GDP leads to its faster growth rate. It is extremely important, since the population naturally does not care what proportion of the economy it is consuming, only that its material well-being is rising. But there is no paradox if it is understood that there is no such thing as a Consumption-led economy. On the other hand, as Investment increases the means of production, then the economy as whole can expand with rising Investment. From this expansion of GDP it is possible to increase the level of Consumption.

This is why the economic policy framework outlined by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell recently is so important, because it is correct. There is a clear emphasis on borrowing for investment, and that the current or day-to-day budget will be in balance over the business cycle. The National Investment Bank will be the principal vehicle for the investment. This amounts to the public sector having a greater role in the investment function, thereby leading to stronger growth. It is primarily from this source of rising activity that the current budget will be brought into balance as tax revenues increase and social welfare outlays related to poverty and underemployment decline. Over time the entire austerity could be reversed and living standards raised.

It is George Osborne’s refusal to invest, indeed his ridiculous ban on productive investment that will deepen the crisis. The new framework from the labour leadership begins to offer a way out of perpetual crisis and austerity.

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