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Precarious private balance sheets driven by fiscal austerity is the problem

The media has been giving a lot of attention in the last week to the 10-year anniversary of the Lehman Brothers crash which occurred on September 15, 2008 and marked the realisation, after months of denial, that there was a financial crisis underway. Lots of articles have been published recently about what we have learned from this historical episode. I thought that the Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi (September 13, 2018) – Ten Years After the Crash, We’ve Learned Nothing – pretty much summed it up. We have learned very little. Commentators still construct the crisis as a sovereign debt problem and demand that governments reduce fiscal deficits to give them ‘space’ to defend the economy in the next crisis. They are also noting that the balance sheets of the non-government sector components – households and firms – are looking rather precarious. They also tie that in with flat wages growth and a run down in household saving. But the link between the fiscal data and the non-government borrowing data is never made. So we are moving headlong into the next crisis with very little understanding of the relationship between government and non-government. And we are increasingly relying on private sector debt buildup to fund growth as governments retreat. Everything about that is wrong.

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Reliance on household debt and a lazy corporate sector – a recipe for disaster

In yesterday’s blog post – Australian national accounts – growth continues but deep uncertainty looms (September 5, 2018), my theme was that the current period of economic growth in Australia was being built on what we might consider to be quicksand – increasing household debt and a run-down in household saving. Australia’s household saving ratio is now down to 1 per cent and falling, which is taking us back to the madness of pre-GFC. By any stretch this is an unsustainable growth path. Last Monday (September 3, 2018), the Australian Bureau of Statistics published their data series – Business Indicators, Australia, June 2018 and – Retail Trade, Australia, July 2018. The latter gives a more recent estimate of what the economy is doing, given the national accounts data that came out yesterday covers the period from April to June. Things are definitely not going in the right direction. The data shows that the benefits of growth are being disproportionately captured by profits and wages are lagging well behind. Overall, this is a recipe for disaster.

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Australian national accounts – growth continues but deep uncertainty looms

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest June-quarter 2018 National Accounts data today (September 5, 2018). While the economy recorded a relatively robust 0.9 per cent growth for the quarter and 3.4 per cent over the 12 months to March 2018, the economy remains reliant on household consumption expenditure, which, in turn, is being driven by credit and declining savings as household income growth moderates. There is very little growth contribution coming from the external sector and the contribution from private investment was zero. That is an unsustainable mix. All this means that the current overall growth trajectory is fairly fragile. There is a high probability that household consumption expenditure will slow right down as debt levels become unmanageable. Whether that happens will depend on the wages growth trajectory in future quarters and the outlook on that front is mixed. Overall, this is not a balanced growth outcome.

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Public infrastructure investment must privilege public well-being over profit

One of the principle ways in which so-called progressive political parties (particularly those in the social democratic tradition) seek to differentiate themselves from conservatives is to advocate large-scale public infrastructure investment as a way of advancing public good. You can see evidence of that in most nations. Nation-building initiatives tend to be popular and also are less sensitive to the usual attacks that are made on public spending when income support and other welfare-type programs are debated. Capital worked out long ago that public spending on infrastructure provided untold benefits by way of profits and influence. In the neoliberal era, the bias towards ‘competitive tendering’ and public-private partnerships has meant that private profit tends to dictate where and what public infrastructure is built. The problem is that large-scale projects tend to become objects of capture for the top-end-of-town. Research shows that these ‘megaprojects’ typically deliver massive cost overruns and significantly lower benefits than are first estimated when decisions are being made about what large projects to fund. Further, evidence suggests that this is due to corrupt and incompetent behaviour by private project managers (representing their companies) and empire-building public officials. They lie about the costs and benefits so as to distort the decision-making processes in their favour. Any progressive government thus must be mindful of these tendencies and behaviours. A progressive policy agenda needs to be more than just outlining a whole lot of nice sounding public infrastructure projects that the government will pursue. The whole machinery of public procurement that has emerged in this neoliberal era needs to be abandoned and replaced with decision-making processes and rules that privilege the advancement of public well-being over profit.

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Australian households running down savings and in a race to go broke

A short blog post today as it is Wednesday. I have also been travelling a lot and have been reading a lot. And have been otherwise distracted. But I thought this information was worth writing a few paragraphs about for the record. Last week, I wrote a blog post – The fundamental realignment of British society via fiscal austerity (July 30, 2018) – about some of the more unsavoury impacts of the British government’s austerity push. I highlighted how the current growth strategy was precarious because it was reliant on the private domestic sector accumulating increasing debt to maintain consumption growth at a time when the external sector was draining growth, private investment was weak and the government was hell bent on cutting services and infrastructure investment. The ONS data shows that “UK households have seen their outgoings surpass their income for the first time in nearly 30 years” and they “are borrowing more and saving less”. A recipe for disaster. A report published in Australia late last week – 14th Household Financial Comfort Report (August 2018) – provides “in-depth and critical insights into the financial situation of Australians based on a survey of 1,500 households”. It is not a pretty story and demonstrates the global uniformity of the neoliberal approach, which is characterised on ever increasing private debt and falling commitments to sustain public services. The GFC only temporarily interrupted this agenda that aims to reverse decades of gains for workers and their families under social democratic governments.

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US growth surprise will not last

Last Friday July 27, 2018), the US Bureau of Economic Analysis published their latest national accounts data – Gross Domestic Product: Second Quarter 2018 (Advance Estimate), which tells us that the annualised real GDP growth rate for the US was a very strong 4.1 per cent in the was 3 per cent in the June-quarter 2018. Note this is not the annual growth over the last four-quarters, which is a more modest 2.8 per cent (up from 2.6 per cent in the previous quarter). As this is only the “Advance estimate” (based on incomplete data) there is every likelihood that the figure will be revised when the “second estimate” is published on August 29, 2018. Indeed, the BEA informed users that it has conducted a comprehensive revision of the National Accounts which includes more accurate data sources and better estimation methodologies. So I had to revise my entire dataset today to reflect the revisions. The US result was driven, in part, by “accelerations in PCE and in exports, a smaller decrease in residential fixed investment, and accelerations in federal government spending and in state and local spending.” Real disposable personal income grew at 2.6 per cent (down from 4.4 per cent in the first-quarter). The personal saving ratio fell from 7.2 per cent to 6.8 per cent. Notwithstanding the strong growth, the problems for the US growth prospects are two-fold: (a) How long can consumption expenditure keep growing with flat wages growth and elevated personal debt levels? (b) What will be the impacts of the current trade policy? rise is a relevant question. At some point, the whole show will come to a stop as it did in 2008 and that will impact negatively on private investment expenditure as well, which has just started to show signs of recovery. Government spending at all levels has also continued to make a positive growth contribution. But with rising private debt levels and flat wages growth the growth risk factors are on the negative side. When that correction comes, the US government will need to increase its discretionary fiscal deficit to stimulate confidence among business firms and get growth back on track.

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Australian National Accounts – strong growth but unbalanced and fragile

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest March-quarter 2018 National Accounts data yesterday (June 6, 2018). The results were very interesting and shows how vulnerable the Australian economy is despite the relatively strong growth that was recorded. Total growth for the quarter was a healthy 1 per cent which led to an annual growth rate of 3.1 per cent. That is close to our long-term trends. The standout contributor was exports. The National Accounts data indicates that the Australian economy continues to ride the terms of trade cycle. There was a sharp boost in our terms of trade in the March-quarter 2018, which drove export revenue up sharply. At the same time, household consumption expenditure continued to moderate as high levels of debt and flat wages growth impact. Domestic demand was weaker as a result. The boost to exports is volatile while the moderation in consumption is now structural and this means that the current overall growth trajectory is fairly fragile despite the stronger growth in the March-quarter overall. I expect household consumption expenditure to remain subdued while the path that exports will take is much more uncertain. Overall, this is not a balanced growth outcome.

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Australian national accounts – growth slowdown continues

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest December-quarter 2017 National Accounts data today (December 6, 2017). It showed several things that defy the hype in the media. First, overall real GDP growth was just 0.4 per cent for the quarter – 1.6 percent annualised – miserable. Even the actual annual rate of 2.4 per cent is well below past trends. Private capital formation was negative. Net exports were negative. Growth is being sustained by household consumption on the back of record levels of household debt and government spending (mostly local and state level investment). Without the contribution of government spending, overall growth would have been negative in the December-quarter. And this is a government that is trying to cut its deficit. This ‘rear vision’ account of where the economy was in the last three months of 2017 is thus not very good reading. Real GDP growth has fallen from 0.8 per cent in the June-quarter, to 0.6 per cent in the September-quarter to 0.4 per cent in the December-quarter. That is a trend I suspected would emerge. What is obvious to me is that private investment is flagging after showing some signs of recovery and a stronger fiscal contribution is necessary to ensure that household consumption scales more proportionately with growth in incomes rather than debt. than is evident in the current data. The external sector continues to make a negative contribution to growth with exports falling. There is no big Post Mining Boom-Export Boom happening folks. The one positive was that growth in compensation of employees was above 1 per cent for the quarter and 4.8 per cent for the year. We will see whether that materialises into a trend. As I concluded last quarter, the overall assessment is that growth is positive but slowing. And, it remains unbalanced and uncertain.

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Australia national accounts – growth slows with declining consumption growth

When the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the September-quarter National Accounts (on September 6, 2017) annual growth was running at 1.8 per cent, around half the trend rate before the GFC. But the striking result was that public spending (consumption and investment) contributed 0.8 percentage points to the growth rate – which means that without that contribution, real GDP growth would have been zero in the September-quarter. Today (December 6, 2017) we received the next ‘rear vision’ account of where the economy has been from the ABS, when it released the September-quarter 2017 National Accounts data. Real GDP rose by 0.6 per cent in the September-quarter 2017 (down from 0.8 in the June-quarter) and the annual growth (last four quarters) was just 1.8 per cent just under half the trend rate before the GFC. The striking result was that household consumption expenditure was very weak while private capital formation improved. The reduced growth in household consumption (with a slight rise in the saving ratio) may signal that the recent credit-fuelled consumption binge is coming to an end and households are starting to restructure their precarious balance sheets. Let us hope so. But this will require a stronger fiscal contribution than is evident in the current data. The external sector made a zero contribution to growth while public spending (consumption and investment) reduced growth by 0.4 percentage points (a sharp reversal on the June-quarter result). Overall, the growth is unbalanced and uncertain.

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Australian national accounts – government spending drives growth

The ABS released the – June-quarter 2017 National Accounts data – today (September 6, 2017), which showed that real GDP had risen by 0.8 per cent in the June-quarter 2017. Annual growth (last four quarters) was just 1.8 per cent around half the trend rate before the GFC. The striking result was that public spending (consumption and investment) contributed 0.8 percentage points to the growth rate – which means that without that contribution, real GDP growth would have been zero in the June-quarter 2017. Private consumption expenditure contributed 0.4 points, although the household saving ratio fell again indicating the tenuous nature of relying on this growth with flat wages. Private investment spending was negative. Net exports were stronger with export volumes strong in the face of the falling terms of trade. Overall, the growth is unbalanced – relying on lumpy public investment spending and credit-driven private consumption growth. The outlook is thus uncertain.

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