The relation of profits and 'austerity'

By Michael Burke

In what may be an important development the Financial Times reports that, in return for accepting much larger ‘haircuts’ (imposed losses on the value of the bonds they own) bondholders are demanding that there must be a growth strategy for Greece.

In a piece headlined ‘Bondholders Demand Greek Growth Plan’ the paper quotes the Managing Director and chief negotiator for the Institute of International Finance, which represents the largest bondholders mainly the banks. The call for a growth plan is not given much substance in the article.

But there is a logic to the demand. Bondholders are most concerned about cash flow from interest payments and the final repayment of debt principal. In all the Euro Area economies where severe ‘austerity’ measures have been applied bond yields have risen - Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and now Italy. This implies that the bondholders’ risk of not receiving those cash flows and principal has risen, and that a higher interest rate is demanded to compensate. ‘Austerity’, a generalised attack on the living standards of the overwhelming majority, has failed to provide reassurance to bondholders that they will get all the bond repayments. Instead, the reduction in incomes and economic crisis that has followed has increased the risks that the governments will default. If it proves to be the case now that the bondholders are demanding not more austerity, but growth, this would reflect the accurate judgment on their part that the risk of default has increased because of massive cuts in government spending. It is a demand that the European governments provide funds to Greece to help the economy recover, not impose more cuts.

Can ‘Austerity’ Work?

Of course the bondholders, mainly the banks but also increasingly other parasites such as hedge funds and ‘vulture funds’, had no qualms about massive assaults on pay, jobs, pensions, services and welfare benefits while they thought it improved their own prospects of being repaid by EU governments. But even at an earlier stage it was clear to some that cuts in government spending would not work. This is shown in the actions of the credit ratings’ agencies – who effectively represent the interests of the bondholders – and have repeatedly campaigned for large cuts in government spending, only then to downgrade countries such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain because of the negative economic impact of those same cuts.

By now it is increasingly clear in the case of Greece that any further cuts will be equally counter-productive in restoring the growth required to service debt. But the IMF, ECB and EU Commission are holding up another example of how their impositions can be made to work - Ireland. The ‘Troika’ argue that successive Irish governments (the current coalition of the rightist Fine Gael and Irish Labour Party having replaced the populist right of Fianna Fail) have stuck to the measures agreed, that growth has resumed and that therefore the deficit is falling.

In fact, the previous government imposed cuts in 2008 and before any international agency demanded them. The current government is set to announce its own first Budget, which will also impose greater cuts than demanded by the Troika. It is also widely understood, if not by the Troika, that Irish GDP is artificially inflated by the activities of (mainly) US multinationals booking activity and profits in Ireland to avail of its ultra-low corporate taxes. This has seen GDP rise in the latest two quarters. But domestic demand fell again by 1.1% in the 2nd quarter of this year, a 3 ½ year-long slump collapse and is now 24.8% below its level at the end of 2008. According to the IMF the Dublin government’s deficit will be 10.3% of GDP this year, having been 7.3% before the cuts began to bite in 2008.

Even so, the Troika are increasingly determined that the deficit will decline and prove their case. They point to the fact that, excluding enormous bank bailouts equivalent to over 20% of GDP last year, borrowing fell from €23.5bn in 2009 to €19.3bn in 2010, an improvement of €4.2bn. Yet this is simply because the value of bonds redeemed in 2010 was €4bn lower. Otherwise there is no underlying improvement in the level of borrowing at all.

But there is an important difference with Greece. Following big tax increase Athens’ taxation revenues have fallen by 4.2%in the first 9 months of this year whereas Dublin’s tax revenues are 8.4% higher reflecting the imposition of new income taxes. The key difference is that Ireland was a much more prosperous country than Greece prior to the crisis. Per capita incomes were 50% higher, even adjusted for Purchasing Power Parities. Therefore, while the cuts have certainly had a negative impact on Irish growth, and the domestic economy continues to contract, the level of impoverishment of the entire economy is not in the same category as Greece, where even bondholders may now accept that further cuts are counter-productive. Instead, the impact of the cuts in Ireland might be said to be Greece in slow-motion.

Who Benefits?

The new caution in imposing further cuts in Greece is the worry of the loan-shark that the borrower may go bankrupt. But while there is still blood that can be squeezed in countries like Ireland cuts remain the sole policy agenda. The effect of this policy is clear from the recent publication of the sectoral accounts for the Irish economy.

This is shown in the chart below, which shows that as Gross Value Added continues to decline, profits have started to recover and therefore the profits’ share of national income has increased.
Figure 1
11 10 26 Profits 1

According to the Central Statistical Office (CSO), ‘The operating surplus or profits of non-financial corporations (NFCs) increased from €35.2bn in 2009 to €37.8bn in 2010. The other main component of value added is compensation of employees or wages and salaries which declined from €37.3bn in2009 to €34.9bn in 2010. Therefore the improved profit share relates more to a decline in payroll costs for these corporations rather than to an increase in overall value added.’
Yet this increase in the incomes of the corporate sector, wholly achieved by reducing wages, has not led to an increase in investment. It has led to the opposite, as the chart below shows.
Figure 2
11 10 26 Profits 2

In the words of the CSO, ‘Expressing gross fixed capital formation as a percentage of gross value added gives the investment rate. Gross value added is largely unchanged between 2009 and 2010 while investment fell from €7.5bn to €5.8bn in the same period resulting in a fall in the investment rate between 2009 and 2010.’

But there is also another way of expressing the investment rate - investment as a proportion of corporate incomes, or profits. On this measure, the investment rate has fallen by €1.9bn even as profits have increased by €2.9bn, by reducing wages by €4.9bn. The total investment rate has fallen on this measure from 21.3% to 15.3%.

From the point of the view of the economy as a whole, this transfer of incomes has been disastrous. The corporate sector has €32bn in unspent (uninvested) income from profits. But the household sector – which spends more than 90% of its income – has had its income reduced.

The thrust of policy is not to produce an economic recovery. It is to produce a recovery in profitability. In this, it has been a qualified success. The absolute level of profits has recovered from its low and the profit share of output has also increased to more than 50%, even if profits have not recovered their previous peak. The intention is clearly to achieve that goal at the expense of wages.

In Ireland it has become commonplace to suggest that, while all sorts of investment projects and welfare provision are desirable, ‘there is no money left’. On the contrary, the €32bn level of uninvested profits in 2010 alone is almost exactly equal to the entire reduction in GDP in the recession which began in 2008, €34bn.

This is the thrust of the entire ‘austerity’ policy across Europe, the transfer of incomes from labour to capital in order to increase profitability. In a subsequent blog SEB will examine the effective of this policy in the leading European economies, including Britain.

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