Posts By Michael Burke

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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.

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That Tory Recovery in Perspective

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This post was originally published on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Tuesday the 18th of March.

This week George Osborne will announce his latest Budget. The specific measures in this Budget were not published at the time of writing. But it is a fairly safe assumption that he will boast that the economy is on track, and that there is a recovery. This is simply an exercise in redefinition.

The economy grew by just 1.9% in 2013. This is following a period of historically slow growth, the deepest recession in living memory and the weakest recovery on record. Yet many commentators and not just explicit supporters of austerity seem to believe this means we are automatically on track for a genuine recovery with all that means for growing jobs, rising real pay and improving living standards.

Unfortunately both the celebrations and the optimism are misplaced. Of course this does not mean that the economy will never grow again. It is even possible that growth will be a little better in 2014 than it was in 2013. But after most recessions the economic rebound is usually fairly strong. After a very steep recession the recovery should be very strong. That is not the case currently.

Annual growth in GDP of just 1.9% in 2013 is the best since 2007. But that is really a measure of the crisis of the economy and how badly policy has failed.

Prior to the current crisis, in the 20 years to 2008 the average annual growth rate of GDP was a little under 3%. In the same 20 year period from 1988 to 2008 only 3 years have seen worse growth for the British economy than last year’s 1.9% and all of those were associated with the recession under the Tories in the early 1990s (the ERM crisis).

So, a growth rate associated in the past with crisis is now redefined as recovery and heralded as success. Crisis is redefined as success; stagnation is now growth.

Current growth rates also remain well below the previous trend. That means the gap between where we are and where could or should have been is actually getting wider. It would take many years of sustained growth above that 3% rate in order to close the gap between the actual level of GDP and its previous trend. No major forecasting body suggests anything like that is going to happen over the next few years. The chart below shows the trend growth of Britain’s GDP in from 1988 to 2008.

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Marx was right all along, says investment bank

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This article appeared as a post on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Tuesday the 4th of March.

Well, not quite. But a recent study by leading investment bank Credit Suisse shows that long-term growth rates of GDP in selected industrialised economies are negatively correlated with financial returns to shareholders. That is, the best returns for shareholders are from countries where GDP growth has been slowest, and vice versa. Where growth has been strongest, shareholder returns are weakest.

This is shown in the chart from Credit Suisse below.

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Business Insider magazine carries a report of the research. It makes a series of bizarre arguments in an attempt to explain the correlation. The first is that stock markets anticipate future economic growth. But given that these data are based on the last 113 years, the stock markets must be very far-sighted indeed. The subsequent arguments do not get any stronger.

The negative correlation does not prove negative causality. But it does support the theory which suggests that the interests of shareholders are contrary to the interests of economic growth and the well-being of the population.

The clearest theory which this data supports, that the interests of shareholders are counterposed to that of economic growth, was formulated by Marx. In Capital he argues that the ‘development of the productive forces’ (the investment in the means of production and in education that are required to increase the productivity of labour and hence economic growth) runs up against the barrier of the private ownership of the means of production*.

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Who’s Fooling Who at the BBC?

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This post originally appeared on the Socialist Economic Bulletin blog today.

Robert Peston is the BBC’s new economics editor. He has opened his new role with a programme called ‘How China Fooled the World’. For a time it is available on BBC iPlayer and Peston’s own summary is here.

In the blog and the programme Peston argues that China dodged the global economic crisis by increasing investment, specifically state-led investment. But the prevailing level of investment was already excessively high, the argument runs, and merely postponing the crisis by increasing it further will only exaggerate the inevitable crash.

The strangest thing about this argument is not the misapprehensions about the Chinese economy or even the evident lack of understanding about the forces that created what is described as the Chinese ‘economic miracle’. The main fault is that Peston does not seem to grasp the mutual relations between economies, or what is the motor force of economic growth. The BBC’s economics editor is making economic howlers.

This is the most important feature of the programme. Neither what Peston nor what SEB says is likely to affect the outcome for Chinese growth. But understanding its dynamics is crucial to a wider understanding of the economy and how to address crises where they actually exist. One of the countries where there is currently an economic crisis is Britain, not China.

Growth Forecasts

The argument rests on Peston’s own forecast of an imminent economic and financial crash in China. This puts him at odds with all the main leading global economic institutions, the IMF, World Bank, OECD and so on.

To take one example the IMF estimates that China’s real GDP growth will be 7.3% in 2014 after increasing by 7.6% in 2013. It also forecasts an increase of 7% in each of the three years from 2015 to 2018. By contrast, the IMF forecasts that British growth is stuck around the 2% rate every year until 2018, when it accelerates to 2.3%. The IMF data and projections for GDP real growth for Britain and China are shown in the chart below (Fig.1).

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Fig.1 IMF data & forecasts for China and Britain real GDP Growth

It is entirely possible that the official bodies are all wrong on Chinese growth. But without making the argument on why growth is destined to collapse, Peston is simply joining the very long list of those who have wrongly forecast China’s imminent demise, some of whom have continued to do so over a very prolonged period.

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Paper Tigers and Real Ones

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This is a guest post by Michael Burke.  Michael works as an economic consultant. He was previously senior international economist with Citibank in London. He blogs regularly at Socialist Economic Bulletin.  You can follow Michael at @menburke . It was originally posted on Notes on the Front.

Most people don’t care much about GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or most other acronyms that get bandied about on the economy. For good reason.

The purpose of economic policy is, or ought to be, about achieving the optimal sustainable improvement in living standards for the population. If businesses produce goods that no-one buys and they accumulate as unsold inventories, or if the buying power of businesses or households declines so that imports fall, both of these count as increases in GDP.

What really matters is if the economy and society as a whole is moving forwards, if people see an increase in their living standards and reasonably expect that the next generation or two will see the same.

In that light, the latest forecasts from the Central Bank of Ireland are not very encouraging. Sure, there is a forecast of 2.1% real GDP growth for the economy in 2014. But in terms of real wages, on average they will be zero as a projected 0.5% increase in wages is effectively wiped out by the anticipated level of inflation. Government current spending is also expected to fall in 2014 more than it did in 2013, so living standards for most people will actually decline again.

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Trends In Economic Output in Ireland

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There is very little combined economic analysis of both parts of the island of Ireland. With the exception of some very useful and innovative work done by the NERI Institute, it is not clear there is any other body which attempts to look at the island economy by simultaneously integrating an economic perspective North and South.

This is regrettable. To take just one example, about one-third of what the Office of National Statistics (ONS) designates NI exports goes southwards, although the proportion of exports from the RoI to the North is far smaller. In fact, despite all the obstacles in terms separate jurisdictions, regulations, monetary and fiscal policies, etc., it is very likely that the two economies are more integrated now than at the time of Partition. But that is a question for another time.

A recent development from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) does allow at least some useful comparisons to be made. Gross Value Added (GVA) is a measure of total output in an economy which excludes the effects of taxes and subsidies on production, to remove the distortions caused by them. It can be used when comparing the levels and composition of output in differing regions.

The Central Statistical Office (CSO) has for some time provided a real measure of GVA, which excludes the effects of inflation. The ONS has only recently done the same for what it describes as the regions of the UK.

The results are in the chart below show real GVA in both parts of Ireland. The indices of activity are adjusted so that the year 2010 equals 100.

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World Bank Sees a ‘Turning-Point’ in World Economy

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The World Bank has recently released its updated forecasts for the world economy. Two key features of the forecasts have received the greatest attention. The first is that the World Bank describes the overall trend in the world economy as at a ‘turning-point’ and secondly that this is led by a recovery in the advanced industrialised countries, or High Income Countries in the World Bank’s categorisation.

In terms of the forecasts, global GDP growth is expected to advance from 2.4% in 2013 to 3.2% this year rising to 3.4% in 2015 and 3.5% in 2016. Within that the Developing Economies are expected to grow by 5.3% in 2014, accelerating to 5.5% and 5.7% in 2015 and 2016 having grown an estimated 4.8% in 2013. But the bigger contribution to global growth is expected to come from the High Income Countries (HICs) which grew by just 1.3% in 2013 (estimated) rising to 2.2% in 2014 and 2.4% in both the following years.

So global growth is only ‘led by’ the HICs in the sense that the modest acceleration in projected growth is from the low base of 2013, a rise from 1.3% to 2.4%. By contrast the Developing Economies as a whole are expected to accelerate from 4.8% in 2013 to 5.7% in 2016, a rise of 0.9%. As a result the growth gap between these two key categories of the global economy narrows from 3.5% to 3.3%, on World Bank forecasts.

Over the medium-term the compound effect of growth differentials of this magnitude is very large. If a 3.3% differential in growth were maintained over 25 years, the Developing Economies would double in size relative to the HICs.

Turning to the performance of the HICs alone, the chart below shows World Bank data for their gross savings and investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) as a proportion of GDP (left-hand side). The growth of GDP is the grey line shown on the right-hand side.

What is clear is that all three variables are in a downtrend. That is, both the cyclical high-points and low-points become progressively lower over time. The slump in activity in 2008 and 2009 is the exception not the rule. The rule is a steady downtrend in activity.

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How Bad Will It Get?

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Chancellor George Osborne has recently been promoting two ideas. One is that a recovery is under way and the other is that further cuts in government spending are needed, up to £25bn.

The contradictory nature of those two statements tells us something important about the nature of the current recovery and the actual content of economic policy. It is clear that however weak the current recovery is, the overwhelming bulk of the population will not benefit from it. Austerity policies have always been aimed at transferring incomes from labour and the poor to capital and the rich. So for example, a VAT increase was said to be necessary to cut the deficit yet was simultaneously implemented with a cut in the corporation tax rate which reduced government revenues by almost exactly the same amount.

The popular shorthand for this is a recovery solely for the 1%. The class content is clear. The policy is designed to boost capital at the expense of labour and its allies.

Austerity is not at all designed to boost total economic output, in which capital might be one of the beneficiaries. The reason is simple. In the ordinary course of events an economic downturn or slump leads to a fall in profits far greater than the fall in output. A simple recovery in output could entrench that for a prolonged period.

So, the owners of a car firm sell cars worth £1,000 million in a year. Their main costs are all the inputs of labour, capital and raw materials amounting to £800 million. But these largely to tend to stay the same or even continue to rise a little when the downturn occurs. Suppose sales fall by 10% to £900 million. Input costs are unaltered in aggregate. Now profits are only £100 million and previously they were £200 million. On a 10% decline in sales, profits have fallen by 50%. Profits fall faster than output.

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Britain’s Economic ‘Boom’

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This post originally appeared in Socialist Economic Bulletin on the 19th of November. 

As the British economic crisis becomes more prolonged the outbreak of stupidity that greets every new piece of important economic data becomes more generalised. Previously there has been a campaign to suggest that austerity has led to recovery when the opposite is the case. The recovery is based unsustainably on rising consumption, led by government consumption. The publication of the latest GDP data for most major economies has now led to wild suggestions that Britain is booming and is the strongest major economy in the world.

The level of real GDP in Britain since the recession began at the beginning of 2008 is shown in the chart below. It is compared to the US and the Euro Area. British growth has been almost exactly the same as that of the Euro Area as a whole and significantly worse than US GDP growth.

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Why Public Investment is Falling

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The level of public investment is falling in most of the advanced industrialised economies including Britain. The chart below appeared in the Financial Times and has attracted some publicity because it shows this decline in the US in stark terms.

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The difference between gross government investment and net government investment is accounted for by depreciation. All investment is subject to depreciation over time. This deducts from the level of gross investment. In the US net government investment (after depreciation) has fallen from 4% of GDP close to 1% of GDP.

It is set to fall further. The chart below also appeared in the FT piece but was less remarked. It shows the various Budget proposals from the Republican and Democrat parties in Congress as well as the Obama proposals. In all cases the Budget plans are to maintain a trend decline in public investment (excluding defence spending) with just one minority proposal for a temporary increase in investment.

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Both the British government and the US government have talked a great deal about the need for greater investment in infrastructure and greater public investment.

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The Cash Hoard of Western Companies

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This post was originally published on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Monday the 21st of October.

Supporters of ‘austerity’ would have a very strong argument if there really were no money left. In that case, opponents of current policy would be left arguing only for a fairer implementation of those policies, or that perhaps they could be implemented more slowly.

This is not the case. Firms in the leading capitalist economies have been investing a declining proportion of their profits. This is the cause of the prolonged period of slow growth prior to the crisis and a number of its features such as stagnant real wages, so-called ‘financialisation’ and the growth in household debt.

This negative trend of declining proportion of profits directed towards investment reached crisis proportions in 2008 and is the cause of the slump. As a consequence of the sharp fall in this investment ratio there has been a sharp rise in the both the capital distributed to shareholders and in the growth of a cash hoard held by Non-Financial Corporations (NFCs). This cash hoard is a barrier to recovery, releasing it could be the mechanism for resolving the crisis.

The chart below shows the level of surplus generated by US firms (Gross Operating Surplus) and the level of investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) for the whole economy. Since the former are only presented in nominal terms, both variables are presented here in the comparable way.

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The nominal increase in profits has not been matched by an increase in nominal investment. In 1971 the investment ratio (GFCF/GoS) was 62%. It peaked in 1979 at 69% but even by 2000 it was still over 61%.

It declined steadily to 56% in 2008. But in 2012 it had declined to just 46%.
In a truly dynamic market economy there is nothing to prevent the investment ratio from exceeding 100% as firms utilise resources greater than their own (borrowing) in order to invest and achieve greater returns.

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The Party’s Over

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The latest GDP data were a disappointment. The world economy recovered a little around the middle months of this year. And some surveys suggested that, despite austerity, this meant Irish GDP growth recorded in the second quarter would be a bit stronger than the outturn of +0.4%. Worse, as Michael Taft points out, GNP actually contracted by the same amount in Q2.

The economy is still 9.5% below its previous peak at the end of 2007. Any talk of recovery is therefore entirely misplaced.

But it is strange that while we are halfway through the sixth year of the Irish Depression there remain a number of myths regarding the causes of the slump. One of the most prevalent of these is that the entire preceding boom was driven by solely by a housing bubble and that its bursting is unavoidably the main factor in the subsequent crash.

The chart below shows the real output of the different sectors of the economy since the beginning of the Depression. Building and construction is shown in yellow. Clearly it has contracted sharply, almost to nothing. But is also clearly not responsible for the entirety of the slump.

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In fact this real measure of changes in output shows that building and construction has not even registered the largest decline in output. The table below shows the change in output of the different sectors of the economy.

 

Change in Real Output from Q4 2007 to Q2 2013, €bn

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Industry has clearly contracted more in terms of real output than any other category and is nearly responsible for half of the total fall in output. The total for the services category is somewhat misleading as this includes rent, which has continued to rise throughout the slump.

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Did austerity lead to recovery? No, GDP was increased by government spending

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This post was originally published on Socialist Economic Bulletin on the 9th of September.

The government and its supporters have been quick to claim that the most recent GDP data have vindicated its austerity policy. George Osborne says the argument in favour of austerity has been won some more excitable commentators have even talked of a boom.

Usually, SEB would provide analysis of the GDP data after the publication of the national accounts, the third release in the cycle from the Office of National Statistics, which provides a detailed breakdown of the components on economic activity and the final revision to the data.

But the claims made for the British economy following the most recent GDP release (and some subsequent surveys) are so outlandish, and so at odds with the facts, that is worth providing a short analysis now.
The data is still partial and subject to revision. But there is enough evidence to demonstrate factually that the weak recovery is not a reward for austerity, but is in fact entirely a function of increased government spending.

The economy has expanded by just 1.8% in 3 years of austerity, an annual rate of 0.6% which is less than one-quarter of previous trend growth. The gap between the current level of GDP and trend growth for the British economy is widening. In addition, the growth to date is entirely a function of increased government spending.

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Who is to blame for the crisis? Not unions, immigrants or ‘scroungers’

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A crisis is an objective fact to which there can essentially be only two responses. The cause can be identified and addressed, or some other explanation can be advanced which effectively shifts the blame for the crisis elsewhere. The government and the supporters of austerity are increasingly bent on the second course.

A succession of scapegoats have been offered for the crisis, including perniciously both immigrants and ‘scroungers’, and now unions. However, as these cannot begin to provide an economic explanation for the crisis, the supporters of austerity also persistently claim that the cause of the current crisis is weak exports, effectively blaming foreigners for the British crisis.

The reality is very different. The chart below shows the trend of total domestic expenditure in the course of the present slump. This is the same as GDP minus the changes in both imports and exports. In 2008 and 2009 activity fell sharply and was followed by a mild recovery. But since the Tories began to implement austerity the domestic economy has stagnated.

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