Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A milestone reached in the British slump

By Michael Burke

The release of the second estimate of GDP in the 3rd quarter of 2013 marks an important milestone in the current slump. The fall in investment has for long been the driving force of the current crisis and in fact preceded it. As in many other countries investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) in Britain began to fall before the recession began. It also statistically accounts for the recession as the fall in investment is larger than the total fall in GDP.

With the publication of the latest GDP data it is now the case that the decline in business investment alone more than accounts for the entire slump in GDP in the current crisis. It is always possible that the data could be revised substantially with the release of the third estimate in the National Accounts data (and could be revised later). But the most recent data show that the total fall in GDP since the 1st quarter of 2008 to the 3rd quarter of 2013 is £40bn. Over the same period the total decline in investment (GFCF) is £61bn. This includes investment by firms, by government and by private households. But it is firms that play a dominant role in the British economy and its level of investment.

The decline in business investment now amounts to £42bn and exceeds the total decline in GDP of £40bn. These are shown in Chart1 below.


The fact that the decline in both business investment and total investment can exceed the decline in GDP is accounted for by the fact that other components of growth have increased. Again, the data is subject to revision in the final release (on 20 December). But both government consumption spending and net exports have increased. The change GDP and its main components since the 1st quarter of 2008 are shown in Chart 2 below.

Chart 2

Taken together the change in government and household consumption combined since the recession began is effectively zero. Household consumption has fallen by £15bn and government consumption, has risen by £16bn. Government consumption is the component of GDP which has grown most over the period.

Zero growth in consumption is hardly to be commended. Yet it is much stronger than the performance of GDP in aggregate. This belies any notion that weak demand is driving the slump. There are a series of variants of this idea, that the economy lacks ‘effective demand’ or is suffering from ‘under-consumption’ and so on.

The driving force of the slump remains the fall in investment, led by the fall in business investment. The fall in business investment alone more than accounts for the entirety of the prolonged crisis. Government could act to offset this by investing on its own account, if necessary drawing on the resources of the private sector to do so. Instead, the Coalition cut public sector investment by £6bn after Labour increased it modestly.

It is still the case that increased public sector investment is the only viable means of resolving the crisis that doesn’t lead to further misery for the majority of the population.

Monday, 25 November 2013

China accounts for 100% of the reduction in the number of the world's people living in poverty

By John Ross
In 2010 Professor Danny Quah, of the London School of Economics, noted: 'In the last 3 decades, China alone has lifted more people out of extreme poverty than the rest of the world combined. Indeed, China’s ($1/day) poverty reduction of 627 million from 1981 to 2005 exceeds the total global economy’s decline in its extremely poor from 1.9 billion to 1.4 billion over the same period.' The aim of this article is to analyse the situation taking data published three years after Quah's analysis; look at the trends not only of extreme poverty, which the World Bank calculates using expenditure of $1.25 a day or less; examine a slightly wider poverty definition ($2 a day expenditure), and compare the trends in other regions of the world economy.

The conclusion is simple. Quah's conclusion still holds. China is responsible for 100% of the reduction in the number of people living in poverty in the world. This finding is the necessary backdrop to any serious and informed discussion of the role of China in the world economy and its contribution to human rights.

*   *   *

There are many remarkable economic statistics about China.
  • China contained 22% of the world’s population when its reforms began in 1978, so the percentage of the world’s population directly benefitting from China’s rapid economic growth is seven times that of the 3% of the world’s population in the US or Japan when they began rapid growth, or the 2% of the world's population in the UK at the time of the Industrial Revolution.
  • China’s 9.9% average increase in GDP per capita during the two last five year plans is the fastest economic growth per capita ever achieved by a major country in human history.
  • In the same period China’s annual average 8.1% increase in household consumption, and 8.3% annual increase in total consumption, including state expenditure on items vital for quality of life such as education and health, was the fastest of any major economy. Coupled with a life expectancy above that which would be expected from China’s GDP per capita it is evident China experienced the most rapid increase in living standards of any country.
  • Measured in Parity Purchasing Powers (PPPs) – that is the real increase in output in steel, cars, transport, services etc. - the greatest absolute increase in output ever recorded in single year by the US was in 1999 when it added $567 billion in output. But in 2010 China added $1,126 billion – more than twice the increase in output in a single year ever achieved by any other country in human history.
Nevertheless, impressive as such statistics are, from the point of view of human welfare it is another number which dwarfs all others: the contribution of China to the reduction of human poverty not only within its own borders but in its impact on the world. The astonishing fact remains that China has been responsible for the entire reduction in the number of people living in absolute poverty in the world!

To show this the table below gives the number of those in China and the world living on expenditure less than the two standard measures used by the World Bank to measure poverty. These are the criteria for extreme poverty, expenditure of less than $1.25 a day ($37.5 a month) and those living in poverty – expenditure of $2 day ($60 a month). Charts showing the trends are at the end of the article.

In 1981, on World Bank data 972 million people in China were living on an expenditure of less than $37.50 a month. By 2008 this had been reduced to 173 million, by 2009 it fell to 157 million. Consequently 662 million people were lifted out of extreme poverty in China in the twenty seven years up to 2008 and 678 million by 2009.

In contrast the number of people living in such extreme poverty outside China increased by 50 million between 1981 and 2008 – the number of people emerging from poverty was less than the population increase. This was due to the rise in the numbe of people living in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. China was consequently responsible for 100% of the world’s reduction of the number of people living in extreme poverty.

Analysing those living on $2 a day ($60 a month), still a very low figure, the trend was even more striking. The number of people in China living on an expenditure of this figure or less fell from 972 million in 1981, to 395 million in 2008, to 362 million in 2009. The number living on expenditure of $60 a month or less in China fell by 577 million by 2008, and by 610 million by 2009.

In contrast the number of those living at this level of poverty in the world outside China rose from 1,548 million in 1981 to 2,057 million in 2008 – an increase of 509 million. Again, China accounted for the entire reduction in the number of people in the world living at this level of poverty.

It is therefore almost impossible to exaggerate what a contribution not only to its own people but to the welfare of the whole of humanity China’s economic progress has made. Without China there would have been literally no reduction in the number of world’s people living in poverty.
The gigantic impact of this on human well-being is not only in its direct effect on personal income and expenditures. It is also in its indirect consequences for human welfare. To take simple examples
  • Life expectancy in China is nine years longer than in India – a country which at the end of the 1940s had a higher GDP per capita than China.
  • Measured per thousand people China has 66% more nurses and midwives and 160% more doctors than India.
  • In China the literacy rate for women aged 15-24 is 99%, on the latest World Bank data, while for India it is 74%.
  • The infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births is 12 in China compared to 44 in India.
The direct and indirect effect of bringing people out of poverty is also the greatest contribution that can be made to human rights, The reality is that China’s bringing over 600 million out of poverty means no other country in the world remotely matches China’s contribution to human wellbeing and real human rights.

Quah, D. (2010, May). 'The Shifting Distribution of Global Economic Activity'.Retrieved January 2, 2012, from London School of Economics:

This article originally appeared at Key Trends in Globalisation

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Britain’s economic ‘boom’

By Michael Burke

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.

It is widely known that many countries in the Euro Area have experienced a severe Depression. Since British growth is now almost exactly the same as the average for the Euro Area as a whole during the crisis it follows that it must be worse than some and better than others. This is shown in the chart below, where among the larger economies Britain’s GDP growth is stronger than both Spain and Italy but worse than both France and Germany.

Outside the Euro Area the British economy is free to set its own monetary policy and to devalue the currency. Via Quantiative Easing and a large fall in the pound it has taken advantage of both of those yet its growth is no better than the average of the Euro Area and is markedly worse than both France and Germany. British growth is also markedly worse than that of Sweden, the next largest EU economy outside the Euro Area.

The cumulative change in real GDP for selected industrialised economies is shown in the chart below. Despite the potential advantage of independent policy setting the cumulative growth of the British economy is worse than the average, although not as poor as Italy and Spain. (The growth of the US economy is slightly overstated because official data now show that the US recession did not begin until the 3rd quarter of 2008).

In no case is this a robust recovery in the industrialised economies either by historical standards or compared to the most dynamic economies in the world currently. Over the same period from the 1st quarter of 2008 the Chinese economy has grown by approximately 60%.

Even compared to the last US recession, current performance has been variously described as ‘sluggish’ or ‘disappointing’. The US is frequently held out as a model of economic recovery. But it has recently entered its fifth year of economic expansion and GDP is just 10% above its low-point in 2009.

The British ‘boom’ is much worse. The low-point of GDP occurred in mid-2009 and since that time has increased by just 5% in 5 years. And the Labour Party was responsible for just under half of that, GDP rising 2.4% in the quarters following the increased investment of the 2009 Budget.

‘Secular stagnation’

Authoritative economists such as Larry Summers (video) and Gavyn Davies and others have instead been discussing the ‘secular stagnation’ of the industrialised economies. Paul Krugman wonders whether this is ‘a permanent slump’.

In the chart below Gavyn Davies shows the actual level of GDP in four economies combined (US, Euro Area, Japan and Britain) are shown along with the consensus forecasts for growth (the blue lines). The trend growth rate of those economies is shown the red line. The dotted yellow line shows the average estimate of potential output.

The red line represents previous level of growth whereas the dotted yellow line represents the average of estimate of what is now possible for growth. In both cases, actual and forecast GDP is set to remain below those levels for some time. But much slower growth projected by the depressed level of estimated potential output shows that the dominant idea is something close to ‘secular stagnation’ for the leading industrialised economies, something like 1.2% growth per year.

Summers and others correctly identify the main cause of the crisis as the slump in business investment, as SEB has argued. However he argues that this is because interest rates are above the level of anticipated return on investment. Yet the widely-acknowledged cash hoard of western firms belies this notion. The large firms which overwhelmingly account for investment have no need to borrow to invest as a result of this cash mountain. They are hoarding cash because the anticipated return itself has fallen. The anticipated return is otherwise known as the profit rate.

The stark long-term consequence of this trend towards declining profitability, lower rates of investment and cash hoarding are shown in a recent chart from the OECD, below. A turning-point in the world economy occurred at the beginning of the 1970s as the long post-War boom was brought to an end. Since that time each recovery from recession in the OECD has been weaker than the preceding one. The Reagan/Thatcher offensive to restore profits has led instead to a progressive weakening of the OECD economies.

The current slump had the weakest growth prior to the recession and the most severe downturn as well as the weakest recovery from it. A hat-trick of neoliberalism.

The growth of the British economy conforms to these patterns and sits in the middle-to-lower band among the OECD economies. The OECD predicts 1.4% GDP growth in Britain for 2013 and 2.4% in 2014.
Only a complete fraudster would describe the British economy as the strongest in the world. Only someone entirely ignorant of both recent and historical economic trends would describe either current or forecast growth in Britain as a boom.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Why public investment is falling

By Michael Burke

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.

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.

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. But the chart below from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows an even more dramatic decline in the level of net public investment in Britain than in the US. Government claims that it is promoting investment are false.

The long-run decline in public investment was interrupted during the crisis. In 2009 the Labour government had a temporary increase in public investment. SEB has peviously shown that this was responsible for a recovery which was actually more robust the the current weak upturn. It should be noted that the much earlier level of public investment was associated with much stronger rates of economic growth and increase in living standards.

The Coalition government slashed public investment so far that net investment even turned negative in the Financial Year just ended. This is caused by the rate of depreciation exceeding the rate of investment. The very modest rises ahead are IFS forecasts.

But this negative rate of net investment is not unprecedented. Net investment fell even more sharply at the turn of this century as the New Labour government stuck to Tory spending plans. Cuts in public investment exacerbate the cause of the current crisis which is an investment strike by firms. This is especially true as public investment is often directed towards decisive areas such as infrastructure (like flood defences) and transport (such as the rail network). When net investment falls to zero or below, things literally fall apart.

Western governments remain dominated by ideas that became established in the Thatcher/Reagan era and were reinforced by Blair and Clinton. Key to these was an attempted reduction of the role of the state in the economy which was dubbed ‘getting out of the way of the private sector’ in order to boost profits. The crisis of 2008-2009 and the stagnation since have disproved that notion.

George Osborne will produce the latest Autumn Statement in December. It will contain no increase in public investment. Instead he is likely to adopt very stringent future public spending targets in the hope that Labour will commit to them. If it does the Tories will then demand that Labour indentifies where it will cut, which can only damage its own support and further damage the economy.

Tory spending cuts have already wrecked a recovery once. Labour’s own history shows that adopting Tory spending plans was both economically and politically damaging. The scale of the current crisis means that repeating that error would be disastrous.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

What are the economic alternatives to austerity? Saturday 9 November

Session at this Saturday's Labour Assembly Against Austerity

What are the economic alternatives to austerity?


Ken Livingstone

Ann Pettifor

Michael Meacher MP

Michael Burke

Labour Assembly Against Austerity
10 – 5 Saturday 9th November

Birkbeck College London

Other speakers at the Labour Assembly include:
Owen Jones,   Diane Abbott MP,   Frank Dobson MP,   Katy Clark MP,
Jeremy Corbyn MP,   John McDonnell MP,   Steve Turner (Assistant General Secretary Unite)  &
Tosh McDonald (Vice President ASLEF).

Other Sessions:
Housing – solving the crisis
No to privatisation – keep health and education public
Opposing austerity – defending public services and the welfare state
Defend the link – defend trade union rights
No scapegoating – immigrants and claimants are not to blame
Fund public services not war
Ending austerity – Labour policies to win in 2015

Conference discussing the alternatives to austerity that Labour needs to put forward to stimulate growth, jobs and better living standards.

Admission £10 (£5 concessions).

For further information and to register visit here