Posts By Michael Burke


Crisis remains an investment crisis

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

Prior 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.


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.

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“The Recovery Has Nothing to Do With the Government”

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“The recovery has nothing to do with the government”. So says Ashok Mody, former head of mission to Ireland for the IMF, according to a report in the Sunday Business Post. He goes on to argue that the current composition of the recovery is unsustainable and that it is unfair. He warns that an export-led recovery cannot be relied on in a slowing world economy and that regressive taxes should be changed. A full interview with him is promised later.

The judgement is valid. In terms of growth the current government’s track record is unexceptional. Taking the 4 ½ years of economic data under the FG/Labour coalition, real GDP grew by 15%. This is an average annual rate of just under 3.2%. This is slightly slower that the growth rate in the last 4 quarters of the previous government of 3.6%. No-one, not even in Fianna Fáil pretends that the previous government had sound economic policies.  

The reason for the moderate average growth rate, very modest following an extremely sharp recession, is that the economy actually contracted in the first part of the FG/Labour term (as shown in Fig.1 below). In the first quarter of 2013 real GDP was 0.7% lower than FG/Labour had inherited almost 2 years earlier. The trend line in the graph shows where GDP would now be if it had continued at the same pace over the last 4 ½ years.


But the former IMF chief is mistaken in one important respect. The recovery is not export-led.

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‘Butskellism’ versus Keynes and Marx

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This article originally appeared on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Wednesday the 7th of Oct

Economics of budget deficits

The debate is continuing on the purpose of government borrowing and the role of ‘balanced budgets’ – which was started by John McDonnell’s position of balancing the budget on current expenditure but borrowing for investment. This is not surprising given that economic policy has to be the core of the programme for a Labour government.

A thoughtful addition to the debate is this piece by Jo Michell in theGuardian, who asks for a real alternative to Osborne, which SEB has provided in relation to the Fiscal Responsibility Act. But an important misunderstanding should be clarified. That article argues that advocacy of a balanced current budget over the business cycle would be to ’emulate Ed Balls and austerity lite.’ That is incorrect. It would only be the case if the level of government investment were maintained at current miserably low levels. Instead what is proposed here is a transformational increase in public investment, sufficient to foster a sustained recovery led by public investment. Far from this being ‘austerity lite’ it makes state driven investment a key to economic policy – entirely unlike the policy of Ed Balls.

The piece below examines this attachment to persistent government budget deficits, which have been combined with a simultaneous long-run decline in public investment.

The position on Osborne’s proposals that a Labour government should balance the budget on current expenditure over the business cycle but borrow for investment is set out in an earlier article here. It follows from the fact that the purpose of economic policy is, or should be, to optimise the growth in the sustainable living standards of the population. Increasing living standards requires growth – internationally over 80% of increases in consumption are due to economic growth. Since it is not possible to increase the fundamental productive capacity of the economy without investment, investment is the decisive factor in producing growth (in an overall framework of increasing the division/socialisation of labour). Therefore economic policy, including fiscal policy, should aim at increasing investment and gradually enhancing the proportion of output devoted to investment. This is the precondition for more rapid growth – ‘growing the economy out of the crisis’ as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn put it. Borrowing should primarily be confined to investment, only resorting to support consumption in specific exceptional circumstances – such as to maintain living standards of the least well off sections of the population during economic downturns. Social protection should be financed via taxation – levied in a disproportionate way on the richer sections of the population.

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Corbynomics and Crashes: Investment Versus Speculation

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This article originally appeared on Socialist Economic Bulletin on the 2nd of September

Words matter. But in economic discussion as elsewhere they are frequently abused. In economic commentary one of the most frequent falsehoods is to describe speculative activity as investment. Stock market ‘investors’ are in fact engaged in speculative activity. There is no value created by this speculation. The claim made by its apologists that it provides for the efficient allocation of capital to productive enterprises is laughably untrue in light of both recent events and long-run history. In fact, a vast number of studies showthat that there is an inverse correlation between the growth rate of an economy and the returns to shareholders in stock market-listed companies.

The chart below is just one example of these studies, Fig. 1. The research from the London Business School and Credit Suisse shows the long-run relationship between real stock market returns and per capital GDP growth. The better the stock market performance, the worse the growth in real GDP per capita. The two variables are inversely correlated.

The Economist found this result ‘puzzling’. But it corresponds to economic theory. The greater the proportion of capital that is diverted towards speculation and away from productive investment, the slower the growth rate will be, and the slower the growth in prosperity (per capita GDP).

Fig.1 Stock market returns and per capita GDP growth

This is exactly what has been happening in all the Western economies over a prolonged period. SEB has previously identified adeclining proportion of Western firms’ profits devoted to investment. The uninvested portion of this capital does not disappear. Instead, it is held as cash in banks and the banks themselves use this to fund speculation and share buybacks by companies (which simply omits the banks as intermediaries in the speculation). The effects of this are so marked that some analysts believe ‘financialisation’ is the cause of the current crisis, when instead it is an extreme symptom of the decline in investment and the consequent growth of speculative activity.

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Who Was Right? The Magic Trick of Austerity

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The Irish economy has finally recovered 8 years after the slump began. This is the longest depression in the history of the State.  Since its inception the economy has grown at around 3% a year. So the lost output over 8 years means that the economy is now about 25% below its trend growth rate.

Supporters of austerity will claim that growth is a result of austerity. But this is a conjurer’s trick, asking us to suspend disbelief. The reality is very different. The Irish economy experienced a change of policy and a change of circumstances. It was these that produced recovery. Everything else is sleight of hand.

When Fine Gael/Labour came to office they implemented their own version of austerity. The response of the economy predictably was to re-enter recession from mid-2012 onwards for 4 quarters, creating the rare phenomenon of a double-dip recession. This is shown in Fig. 1 below. Recovery only happened later.


Fig.1 Real GDP

The policy response was marked, if little publicised. From the end of 2012 onwards there were no new net austerity measures. Instead government spending was actually increased. This was a turn towards stimulus spending, not austerity and is shown in Fig.2 below.

It is not possible to claim that austerity led to recovery. Government spending was increased after the end of 2012 and recovery began 6 months later.


Fig.2 Real Government Spending

The change of circumstances was even more dramatic and had a bigger overall effect on growth.  Since early 2014 the Euro has fallen by 25% against the US Dollar, providing a boost to exporters across the Eurozone and especially to very open economies like Ireland. Many other currencies are linked to the US Dollar in one form or another, notably the Chinese Renminbi. Together, these two economies alone account for 30% of all EU trade.

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Austerity Mark II, same as Mark I

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This article was originally posted in Socialist Economic Bulletin on Thursday, the 9th of July. 

Most media coverage of the Budget is predictably sycophantic and wrong. An objective assessment is that the amount of fiscal tightening planned in this Budget is exactly the same as outlined in the June 2010 Budget. The June 2010 Budget planned tightening of £40bn, but £3bn of this was the projected fall in interest payments. Total austerity measures were £37 billion. This time George Osborne has announced total fiscal tightening of £37 billion, with further details to be added in future Budgets.

Therefore the same result should be expected. The British economy is now 14% larger in nominal terms than it was in 2010, but the international economy is growing more slowly. Circumstances are not exactly the same then and now, but the impact of £37 billion in austerity will be broadly the same. If these plans are implemented growth is likely to slow as it did previously.

At that time in 2010 the economy was growing at a 2.2% annual rate. The imposition of austerity measures slowed that to just 0.7% in 2012 and the economy only narrowly avoided a rare ‘double-dip’ recession[i]. The stronger growth in 2013 and 2014 arose because there were no new austerity measures in the run-up to the General Election.

In that same 2010 Budget Osborne claimed the public sector net borrowing would fall to £37bn in 2014/15, or 2.1% of GDP. The outturn was actually £80 billion and 4.4% of GDP.[ii] In fact the deficit was on a rising trend in 2012 to £111 billion from £92 billion in 2011 as the economy slumped. It only started to fall once new austerity measures were halted and the economy could recover. Austerity did not cut the deficit. Growth did.

Austerity transfer of incomes

Austerity is the transfer of incomes from poor to rich and from workers to big business. Social protections (so-called welfare) are cut in order to drive workers to accept ever-lower pay. If people with disabilities can barely subsist, if the sick have subsistence incomes cut, if women have lower pay, increased burdens from worse public services and greater responsibilities as carers, this is regarded only as collateral damage, if at all.

In the £37 billion in combined tax increases and spending cuts over this Parliament, only £17 billion of that is specified in the latest Budget. Very large departmental cuts will be announced in the Autumn Statement and future Budgets, totalling £20bn. £12 billion of that £17 billion will come from cuts to social security protection, and another £5 billion is said to come from clampdown on tax evasion.

The claim that any of this has as its primary aim deficit reduction is belied by the cut in Corporation Tax to 18%. Even before this cut, businesses paid a token amount of total taxation. In the current year corporate tax receipts are expected to be £42 billion. This compares to a total £331 billion paid in income tax, VAT and council tax.

There is also a host of benefits to companies and the rich including more measures on Help to Buy, and rent a room relief to add fuel to the house price bubble. The Inheritance Tax threshold is raised to £½ million per person, up to £1 million per family on homes. Shareholders can receive £5,000 in dividend payments tax-free. Along with other changes, rich savers can now receive £17,500 a year tax-free. There is an increase in tax-free personal allowances and the main beneficiaries of all such measures are high taxpayers.

For the poorest, there are only ‘welfare cuts’. After 2017 there will be no additional tax credits, Universal Credit or housing benefit for families with more than two kids. New applications to Employment Support Allowance will be curbed, which is for people who are not fit to work. A string of further cuts to entitlements will only emerge slowly. The Financial Times has already shown that cuts to tax credits will hit ethnic minority communities hardest.

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Declining US Profits and Private Investment

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This article was originally published on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Tuesday, 2nd of June. 

US corporate profits fell in the first quarter of 2015. This is the second consecutive fall, technically causing a ‘profits recession’. The nominal level of profits of $2014.8bn in Q1 was lower than in Q2 2012. Profits have fallen to 11.4% of GDP, compared to 12.2% at their pre-crisis peak in Q3 2006. The trend in corporate profits is shown in Fig. 1 below. 

  Fig.1 US Corporate Profits Source: BEA
The motor force of capitalist economies is the accumulation of capital via profits, as the name suggests. ‘Demand-led’ or ‘wage-led’ economies are a logical impossibility for the simple reason the wages, or demand, or any other comparable variable follow the production process. There can be no wages or demand without prior production.

Falling profits in a recovery is extremely unusual. But this is the third time this has happened during this weak recovery. In effect, because the economy lacks any great momentum, it is easy for external effects to push profits lower. This could be poor weather, a stronger US Dollar, shipping strikes, weak overseas demand, and so on.

But the effect of a sustained fall in profits is simple. Companies exist to realise profits and will stop investing if profits fall. In Fig. 2 below US corporate profits and US private sector fixed investment are shown in nominal terms for the purposes of comparison.

The Great Recession was preceded by a decline in profits and the fall in fixed investment followed with a time lag. This was a classic profits-led recession, which was partly obscured by the speculative frenzy that continued until 2007 (but which is a recurring end-of-cycle phenomenon).  

 Fig.2 Profits & Private Fixed Investment. Source: BEA
However, until now private sector fixed investment has not suffered a fall in the current expansion despite the preceding short-lived declines in nominal profits. Since the low-point in private investment at the beginning of 2010 there has been an uninterrupted rise in private investment until the final quarter of 2014.

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Did New Labour Spend Too Much?

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This article originally appeared on the Socialist Economic Bulletin on Tuesday, 19th of May.

It is not sufficient for big business to have secured an election victory and an overall Parliamentary majority for the Tory Party. It is also necessary to intervene in the Labour Party to ensure that its leadership also conforms to big business interests too. This has currently taken the form of candidates in the leadership contest being asked to declare that Labour ‘spent too much’ in the run-up into the Great Recession. Answering Yes to this question is effectively a loyalty oath to big business interests, a renunciation even of the social democratic vestige of economic policy under New Labour.

The question is economically illiterate. It is taken as axiomatic that if there was a deficit that spending must have been too high. But all deficits are composed of two items; spending and income. In the case of government that income arises mainly in the form of taxes. It does not follow from the existence of a deficit that the culprit must be spending.

The reality is that measured as a proportion of GDP New Labour spent less on average than Margaret Thatcher. This is shown in Fig. 1 below. On average New Labour’s spending amounted to 41.5% of GDP. By comparison, under Thatcher government spending was 44.2%. In relation to the deficit, the taxation levels were also very different. Under New Labour taxation revenues were on average 37.5% of GDP. Under Thatcher taxation revenues amounted to 42.0% of GDP.

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Greek Myths Retold

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This article originally appeared on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Friday the 24th of April. 

The world economy is not strong and the President of the United States is sufficiently concerned about new shocks to it that he recently met the Greek Finance Minister to urge ‘flexibility on all sides’ in the negotiations between the Syriza-led government and its creditors. US concern is fully justified. 

In any attempt to reach agreement it is important both to have an objective assessment of the situation and to understand the perspective of those on the opposite side of the table. In Mythology that blocks progress in Greece Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator for the Financial Times argues that negotiations to date are dominated by myths. He demolishes some of these key myths in turn: that a Greek exit would make the Eurozone stronger, that it would make Greece stronger, that Greece caused the crisis driven by private sector lending, that there has been no effort by Greeks to repay these debts, that Greece has the capacity to repay them, and that defaulting on the debts necessarily entails leaving the Eurozone. 

Together, these provide a useful corrective to the propaganda emanating from the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers and ECB Board members. Some of this is slanderous, in repeating myths about ‘lazy Greeks’ (who have among the longest working hours in Europe). Much of it is delusional, based on the notion that Greece can be forced to pay up, or forced out of the Euro without any negative consequences for the meandering European or the world economy. 

Austerity ideology

A genuine belief in a false idea, or a demonstrably false system of ideas constitutes an ideology in the strict meaning of that word. Inconvenient facts are relegated in importance or distorted, and secondary or inconsequential matters are magnified. Logical contortions become the norm. 

All these are prevalent in the dominant ideology in economics, which is supplemented by another key weapon, the helpful forecast. In Britain for example, supporters of austerity argued it would not hurt growth and the deficit would fall. Now there is finally a recovery of sorts, they argue austerity worked, ignoring all the preceding five years and the unsustainable nature of the current recovery (and the limited progress in reducing the deficit). 

For Greece the much more severe austerity and its consequences means that supporters are still obliged to rely on the helpful forecast to support their case. The Martin Wolf piece includes a chart of IMF data on Greek government debt as a percentage of GDP, which is reproduced in Fig.1 below. 

The IMF includes not only data recorded in previous years but its own projections for future years. From a government debt level of 176% of GDP in 2014, the IMF forecasts a fall to 174% this year and 171% in 2016 and much sharper declines in future years. The IMF has also forecast an imminent decline in Greek government debt ever since austerity was first imposed in 2010, which has not materialised. 

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Bernanke versus Summers and the Irish ‘Recovery’

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There is widely followed debate between Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers which has important implications for the Irish economy and its trajectory. 

Summers, who holds innumerable titles is a Harvard Professor and formerly chief economist at the World Bank, initiated the debate with the view that the advanced industrialised economies were experiencing ‘secular stagnation’ (pdf). Bernanke, who is ex-chair of the Board of the US Federal Reserve Bank, accepts that the industrialised economies have been experiencing weak growth but argues that that this was because of very different and easily remedial problems.

They are both wrong. Those who are interested in their detailed arguments, and the responses and counters, should read their many articles and papers in full. But the debate does shed light on some key problems, and the shortcomings of mainstream answers. Here the particular relevance is to the Irish economy.i

In dismissing the idea of ‘secular stagnation’ (that is, a long-term economic malaise which is distinct from the recent slump and its aftermath) Bernanke argues that it is the imbalances of savings and investment between countries that are the key problems. In a generic sense this would place Ireland in the dock, since the CSO reports a current account surplus in 2014 of €11.4bn, roughly 6% of GDP. Ireland escapes Bernanke’s censure, unlike China, because the scale of the Irish surplus is trivial in a global context.

But this highlights a wider point. The Irish current account surplus barely represents the activities of anyone based in Ireland at all. It is due to the activities of multinational corporations, many of them US-based, who park profits and other activity in Ireland to avail of ultra-low corporate taxes. Any national accounts are the sum of the different sectors, or classes, operating within it.

Risk and reward

Summers’ analysis has the merit of not treating the world as an economic version of the board game Risk. He relates ‘secular stagnation’ to the declining rate of productive investment (plant & machinery, factories, software, vehicles and so on, not housing) by companies operating in the industrialised economies.  He also argues austerity is counter-productive, as it reduces their incentives to invest.

But Summers uses the economic jargon the ‘declining natural rate of interest’ to describe the decline of investment. This is in effect a decline in profitable investment or the requirement for investment to achieve profitability (citing companies such as Google and Apple who are hoarding vast sums of cash or WhatsApp which required little productive investment before becoming a stock market darling).

Yet WhatsApp made only losses, not profits before it was bought by Facebook for $22billion. Summers confuses stock market or financial speculation returns with profits. It is also the case that both Apple and Google do invest in new products, and require increasing productive capacity to do so. It is simply that the growth in their profits exceeds the growth in their investment, so that the cash hoard continues to grow. In effect, this is a drain on the economy as profits are realised but this capital is withdrawn from productive use.

How does any of this affect Ireland (apart from many of these companies being based here, for accounting purposes or otherwise)?  This is shown in Fig.1 below, the total financial balances of two key sectors of the economy, companies (Non-Financial Corporations, NFCs) and government. 


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Not a Vintage Year

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This is a post by Michael Burke originally posted on Notes on the FrontMichael 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

The publication of the ESRI’s latest Quarterly Economic Commentary follows the recent publication of the national accounts for 2014. But they were both strangely muted affairs given that the headlines were GDP growth of 4.8% in 2014 and GNP growth of 5.2%. The ESRI is forecasting 4.4% and 4.1% respectively for 2015- although it does not have a very good forecasting track record.

Not only are these the strongest actual and projected growth rates since the recession began but they are also the strongest growth rates in both the EU and in the OECD. So why the long face? Why are people still taking to the streets to protest water charges and the government parties getting no bounce in the opinion polls?

One factor is that despite all the talk of recovery, even on the distorted GDP measure of activity the patient is still convalescing. The economy has not returned to its pre-recession peak, as shown in Chart 1 below. GDP contracted by 12% from the end of 2007 to the end of 2009. In the 5 following years about 70% of that shortfall has been recovered.  On that trend it will be 2016 before the economy is finally in recovery.

Chart 1. Real GDP


On most indicators including GDP the level of activity is now back to around the level last seen in 2010, which was hardly a vintage year. Following a deep recession, industrialised economies much more usually bounce back equally sharply. But this is a slow, painful and incomplete recovery from a deep recession.

Stagnation apart from exports

There is another factor in the subdued mood. GDP is a measure of activity. But it is not designed to be a measure of prosperity. It is widely accepted that recorded export activity is hugely distorted by the activities of multinational company operations in Ireland. Yet since the economy stopped contracting at the end of 2009 these highly distorted net exports (exports after imports are deducted) have risen by an annualised €16bn, almost exactly equal to the rise in GDP.  Net exports, many of them purely fictitious, account for the entirety of the partial recovery.

Chart 2 below shows that the key components of domestic activity are either still falling or are stagnating after a sharp fall. Personal consumption is over €7bn below its peak on an annualised basis and is stagnating. Government spending is €5.6bn below its peak and continues to contract. Popular anger is actually inclined to grow the more there is talk of ‘recovery’.

But the most dramatic contraction is in fixed investment which is now €23.6bn below its peak at the beginning of 2007. The decline in investment led the recession and continues to act as the main brake on recovery. The fall in investment now far outstrips the total decline in GDP since the recession began.

Chart 2 Personal Consumption, Government Consumption and Investment


There might be grounds for increased optimism if the ESRI were plausibly making the case for higher consumption, government spendign and investment. But that is not the case. Private consumption and government consumption are projectedf to rise by just 2% and 0.5% respectively in 2015. Investment is forecast to rise by 12.5% following a double-digit increase in 2014. Even if the ESRI’s optimism is borne out, the fall in investment is now 60% from its peak. So it would take another 4 years of growth at that pace to begin a full recovery.

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Economic Fundamentals and a Unified Irish Economy

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This article is based on a background paper which was delivered to a fringe meeting at the recent Sinn Féin Ard Fheis

In Ireland there are two separate economic entities. Their separation means they run up against the fundamental laws of economics, as first identified by Adam Smith[i]

In the first instance it is the size of the home market which determines the scope of the division of labour. But in Ireland both economies, by their separation, have a truncated home market. This was not always the case. As part of the British Empire the North East portion of the island was highly integrated into what was then the largest ‘home’ market in human history. At the same time most of the rest of the island was primarily a breeding ground for cattle, to help feed the large metropolitan imperial centres.

Post-Partition the situation has dramatically changed.  The Empire is gone while the southern economy has both developed a home market of a certain size while integrating itself to one of the world’s largest markets in the EU. This is the key fundamental fact which explains the dramatic changes in average living standards in the two parts of the Ireland since Partition. 

This is illustrated in Fig.1 below, which shows per capita GDP using common international Dollars (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parities, first Angus Maddison and then OECD). It amounts to a startling transformation of relative prosperity within Ireland.

To specify the data, Maddison shows that per capita GDP in Ireland in 1921 was $2,533 and that in Britain it was $4,439 (and from a variety of sources that average incomes in the north-east counties of Ireland was at least on a par with Britain). From OECD data per capita GDP in RoI was $37,581 in 2013 and in the UK it was 34,755 (and the ONS data shows NI per capita output was 82% of the UK level).


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The Money Exists for Investment in Greece

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This article originally appeared in Socialist Economic Bulletin on Friday, the 27th of February

The fraught negotiations between the new Greek government and representatives of the EU institutions are likely to be prolonged. They have centred to date on Syriza’s efforts to find room to alleviate some of the worst effects of austerity and address what is called the ‘humanitarian crisis’.

This is entirely justifiable given the depth of the fall in living standards with widespread malnutrition in Greece, a health crisis, hundreds of thousands of homes cut off from electricity supply and other ills.

Policies aimed at income redistribution can help in this key area, so it is entirely correct to attempt to increase tax revenue from the rich in order to ameliorate the effects of poverty on the poor. But any sustainable improvement in living standards must be based on increasing the productive capacity of the economy which requires investment. Any transfer of income will be a one-off effect if income does not grow. Yet the austerity measures imposed by the Troika (EU Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) and the existing burden of debt interest payments prevent the government from investing and provide a further disincentive for the private sector to invest of its own volition.

Domestic sources of investment

There are two key sources of funds that could be tapped for investment; domestic and international.

Domestically the Greek business class claims the highest share of national income in the whole of the OECD. In 2013 (in nominal terms) the Gross Operating Surplus of Greek firms was €102.2bn from a GDP total of €182.4bn. This profit share in GDP of 56% is way in excess of the customary levels in the OECD. By comparison the German profit share in the same year was 39.3%.

A high profit share is not itself directly harmful to growth and prosperity. If firms were investing profits the productive capacity would be rising rapidly and new high-quality and high-paid jobs could easily be created. But the opposite is the case in Greece, which also has the lowest rate of investment as a proportion of GDP in the whole of the OECD. Again in nominal terms investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) in Greece in 2013 was just €20.5bn or 11.3% of GDP. By comparison the German proportion of investment was 19.8%.

This is not to hold up the German economic model to be emulated. Like all the Western economies (including Britain) the rate of investment in the German economy has slowed dramatically over several decades, which is the cause of the ‘secular stagnation’ of the Western economies over the same period.

Even so, the disparity in the profit rate and the investment rate is exceptional in Greece. The proportion of uninvested profits in Germany is equivalent to 19.5% of GDP (profits equal to 39.3% of GDP minus an investment level equivalent to 19.8%). This level of uninvested profits is very high by historical standards. But the proportion of uninvested profits in Greece is 44.7% (profits of 56% of GDP minus investment of 11.3%). The nominal level of profits and investment is shown in Fig. 1 below.

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How the Austerity Con Works

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This article originally appeared on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Monday the 23rd of February. 

‘The Austerity Con’ is the title of a recent article in the London Review of Books. It is written by a leading Keynesian economist Professor Simon-Wren Lewis, who is also a fellow of Merton College, Oxford. The article is available to non-subscribers here. It deserves to be widely read because it contains two important arguments against austerity.

The first argument nails the lie that austerity was necessary because of an immediate crisis of government funding. The second argument exposes the myth that austerity has been responsible for an improvement in government finances. Both of these arguments will be familiar to regular readers of SEB and Prof. Wren-Lewis will give them a far wider airing. Given that averting the crisis in government finances is offered by the supporters of austerity as its main justification, the title of his piece is fully justified.

However there is a difference of view among opponents of austerity about the nature of the current crisis. It is important because it underpins both the overall analytical framework and the suggested policy prescriptions. Prof. Wren-Lewis says, “The place to begin is 2009. By then the full extent of the financial crisis had become apparent.” He goes on, “The financial crisis was leading consumers and firms to spend less and save more. That made sense for individuals, but the problem was that because everyone was doing it, the total amount of demand in the economy was falling. As demand fell, firms produced less, so they reduced their workforce.”

This is not entirely accurate. Demand is comprised of two components, consumption and investment. By taking a step back to 2007 it possible to see more clearly how the crisis arose. Regarding the industrialised countries as whole grouped in the OECD it is possible to see that only one of these experienced a sharp fall. This was investment not consumption.

Fig.1 below shows the level of real GDP and its key components, consumption, investment and net exports. The data is presented in both in constant prices in constant Purchasing Power Parity exchange rates and is itemised in the box below.

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