Financial Times chief economics commentator calls for investment as the way out of the crisis – by Michael Burke

In recent articles in the Financial Times, that paper's chief economics commentator Martin Wolf has increasingly acknowledged that investment will be decisive in engineering an economic recovery, especially for highly-indebted countries, such as Britain. [1] He also argues that conventional wisdom about the prospects for economic recovery, and the policy adjustments that will be necessary, is wrong. 'The conventional wisdom is that it will also be possible to manage a smooth exit. Nothing seems less likely.'

The reason for his sober assessment is the trend in private sector financial balances; that is, the growing surpluses of private sector incomes over private sector expenditures. For the OECD as a whole this surplus of private sector savings is projected to reach 7.4% of GDP this year. Britain is one of six countries that will run such financial surpluses of more than 10% of GDP.

This situation, as Wolf points out, has been dubbed 'the paradox of debt' by Paul Krugman, following the Keynesian notion of the 'paradox of thrift'. The argument is that, while for each highly-indebted company or individual it makes sense to save, or in the current climate pay down debt, for the economy as a whole it is potentially disastrous. The aggregate saving reduces final demand, both for business investment and household consumption, and thereby deepens the recession. So incomes for individuals and companies falls further, and they respond by cutting expenditures further, and so on.

There are many criticisms of this notion from what has become orthodoxy over the past several years. The only serious one is that, if the private sector saves in this way but continues to consume and invest in the same proportions all that will then happen is that prices will fall, and goods and services will be cheaper at the new, lower level of spending. However, this ignores two trends that tend to occur in crises and are happening currently, most especially in Britain.

The first is that in a recession investment falls much faster than consumption. Private investment is controlled in the first place by profitability and not by the objective need for production of society. Furthermore, both individuals and companies cut back on investment in order to maintain vital consumption.

Of a total decline in Britain's GDP of £80bn, personal consumption has fallen by £29.5bn and fixed investment has fallen by £45.9bn. In fact, the fall in investment accounts for a little under 60% of the aggregate decline in GDP. This is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

The same pattern, whereby investment is the main driver of the recession, is replicated across the OECD. It is simply not the case that consumption and investment fall in equal proportions. Household consumption has fallen by 3.6%, compared to a fall in fixed investment of 19.3%. Investment is still falling, whereas all the other key components of GDP experienced small rises in the last quarter of 2009.

The second reason why this orthodox criticism is invalid is the level of debt. If prices fall, as orthodoxy expects, the real level of the debt only increases - as has happened in Japan since the beginning of the 1990s deflation in that country. In Britain there was a real danger of deflation, that is persistent price falls, at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, which has been averted by lower interest rates and a weaker pound. But a return to falling prices would mean increases in the debt-servicing burden for all income earners in Britain, including individuals, corporates and the government.

Martin Wolf argues that, while extremely loose monetary policy has been necessary, simply by itself it stores up two alternative problems, both of which lead ultimately to potential disaster. One possibility is that cheap money reignites a boom in consumption, which itself merely postpones an even bigger future financial crisis. The other possibility is that there is no recovery in consumption and the fiscal position deteriorates further, to the point of widespread government defaults.

His solution, set out more fully in the second article 'How unruly economists can agree', is that investment is the solution to both the economic slump and the crisis in government finances. 'What governments should do, instead, is ensure that deficits are credibly temporary, and growth-promoting. By all means, plan to cut the structural deficit faster than the government now intends. But do not believe that that would be the end of the matter. The actual deficit might need to be larger than that, for a long time. Try investment, instead'.

Who will invest?

This focus on investment is the correct one. But Martin Wolf's reliance on the private sector, and cutting the government deficit, is misplaced.

As we have already seen, it is the huge investment fall which is driving the recession. Only a very large increase in investment can therefore restore both prior levels of activity and government finances. Martin Wolf correctly chides many private sector economists and policymakers for wishing the world would return to the way it was before the crisis. He dismisses that hope as both misguided and forlorn. Yet his own hopes for a return to private sector investment themselves are seriously inadequate.

Many private sector economists expressed shock at the very recent data showing that the collapse in UK business investment continues unabated They shouldn't be surprised. Business fixed investment fell by 5.8% in the final quarter of 2009, down 27% from its peak in early 2008. The annualised fall is £40bn, over half the fall in GDP. Manufacturing investment is down 37.5% from its peak, construction down 54.3%, engineering and vehicles down 37.8%, transport down 29.8%.

This litany of an investment collapse, a literal investment strike, highlights a key problem for the idea that encouraging the private sector to invest will provide a sufficient answer to the crisis. Martin Wolf's proposals are private investment incentives - which may or may not work. They have a patchy record, often being taken up by businesses that would have invested in any event, and providing insufficient encouragement to create genuinely new investment. At the same time, he appears to accept the idea of cutting government spending.

While government spending has been rising modestly, and provided a very small cushion against the recession, the private sector is either too cash-strapped to invest, or will not do so because it cannot be confident of profits. The idea, then, that government should forego investment spending, and the economic support it brings the wider economy, is a reckless one. It is premised on the false notion that government investment in a situation such as the present 'crowds out' private investment, as if the economy were a fight in a phone booth. As we have already seen from the investment data, the private sector is in no hurry to invest, the investment strike continues. And taxpayers now own a swathe of the banking sector, so that government could force banks to lend to support any rebound in private sector investment that does occur. Government investment can replace lost private sector investment, especially in areas of extreme falls such as transport, construction, engineering and vehicles. The state may need to increase its direct control over those sectors to achieve that.

But, while it is possible to disagree with Martin Wolf on the likely source of investment over the next period - end entirely disagree with him on the need to cut government spending - it is welcome that influential mainstream economics commentators are now coming to the view that investment holds the key to economic recovery. In his words, 'Let us not repeat past errors. Let us not hope that a credit-fuelled consumption binge will save us. Let us invest in the future, instead.'


[1]Martin Wolf 'The world economy has no easy way out of the mire' and 'How unruly economists can agree'

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