Trumponomics and investment

“The weakness of private business investment in most developed countries through the neoliberal era is difficult to explain on the basis of a standard regression equation. Most of the usual determinants of investment – including profitability, interest rates, and tax and regulatory policies – were aligned in a direction that should have elicited more private investment effort. But the neoliberal recipe delivered less investment, not more. And the failure of accumulated wealth to trickle down creates major economic and political problems for the system and its elites.

For all of Donald Trump’s claims of being an “outsider”, changing the traditional rules of politics and policy, his economic program is absolutely consistent with the general direction of the trickle-down, neoliberal policies that have already governed the US for almost four decades. Trump will further shift the distribution of income upward to corporations and those who own them. His policies will suppress the incomes and the consumption of workers – including cutting their public services. His regulatory and fiscal priorities will favour investment in expensive, capital-intensive sectors (like energy and defense) that support relatively few jobs, while imposing enormous costs on broader society and the planet. His financial and monetary policies will continue to privilege financial wealth and speculation over real investment and production, undoing even the baby steps taken to rein in finance after the conflagration of 2008. The core logic of his approach is transparent: enhance the wealth and power of business and the wealthy, and they will invest more in America, and everyone will prosper. There is very little novel content in Trump’s incarnation of trickle-down policy, and very little reason to believe that it will succeed in revitalizing business investment activity that has chronically disappointed. Outside of bursts of new activity in a couple of targeted sectors (like energy and military industries), there is no reason to expect that the trajectory of US business investment will improve in any sustained fashion under Trump’s guidance. Certainly his program cannot recreate the virtuous combination of driving factors that powered the long postwar boom in US capital accumulation: near-full employment, a growing public sector, and strong productivity growth, all of which (for a while) reinforced the vitality of private investment.

Even if the Trump program did succeed in motivating a generalized resurgence in US private business investment, of course, Americans (and others around the world) would have to ask themselves, “At what cost?” A temporary burst in investment in fossil fuel extraction and consumption, achieved by abandoning environmental regulations that were already too weak, is of dubious value when the costs of fossil fuel use are becoming intolerable. Similar questions could be asked about the general strategy of reinforcing profit margins through the suppression of wages and other socially destructive levers, in a country which already experiences more poverty and inequality than any other industrial nation. Business investment is never an end in its own right; it is socially beneficial only to the extent that it underpins job creation, incomes, productivity, and ultimate improvements in living standards. Trying to elicit a bit more investment effort by suppressing living standards a little further, is self-defeating to the ultimate purpose of economic development.

Investment in the US, and other advanced industrial countries, is held back by more fundamental problems than corporate tax design or environmental regulations. The fundamental vitality of the profit motive in eliciting accumulation, so celebrated in the early chapters of capitalist history, seems to have dissipated. The owners of businesses are content to consume their wealth, or hoard it, or speculate with it, instead of recycling it via new investments. Ever-more desperate attempts to elicit a bit more investment effort never seem to alter this stagnationist trajectory – with the incredible result today that overall production is actually becoming less capital-intensive, despite “miraculous” technological innovations. Trump is giving the trickle-down theory one more kick at the can, having successfully capitalized on popular discontent with the failures of previous attempts. Progressives must work harder to illuminate the failure of this business-led economic logic, and come up with other visions for financing capital investment, innovation and job-creation that do not depend on fruitlessly bribing the investing class to actually do the job it is supposed to.”

Jim Stanford (2017), US private capital accumulation and Trump’s economic program, in Trumponomics: Causes and Consequences, World Economic Association: College Publications, p.135-7.

The complete original article can be accessed for free here.


On catch-up industrialisation

In a number of previous posts on development and industrial policy, I have mentioned the concept of ‘catch-up’. I thought it might be useful to define it in some detail, so here is Akira Suehiro of the University of Tokyo, taken from his comprehensive work Catch-Up Industrialization (2008, p.3-4):

“Catch-up industrialization is a pattern of industrialization frequently, indeed necessarily, adopted by late-industrializing countries and late-starting industries. It is an essential aspect of any attempt to reduce the gap in national wealth between developing and developed countries.

The many varieties of catch-up industrialization generally have the following two points in common.

First, latecomers to industrialization enjoy the advantages of “economic backwardness”, or the advantage of being able to make use of technologies and knowledge systems developed by countries that have gone before. It is expensive and time-consuming for any country to independently develop new technologies and products, not to mention new industrial structures or management organizations. Latecomer countries can achieve great savings of time and capital by adopting the necessary technology and know-how from countries that have already industrialized.

It follows that an important challenge for governments and enterprises in latecomer countries is how to go about importing, adapting, and improving foreign technologies and systems as smoothly as possible. From this fact of life stem many of the most striking features of catch-up industrialization: strong government leadership, positive involvement by financial institutions (with corporate finance through commercial banks rather than stock-markets), development of information-sharing systems between government and private sector and between assemblers and suppliers (intermediate organizations, keiretsu, etc.), the continuation of family businesses such as zaibatsu in corporate management, and the development of distinctive production management control systems in the workplace (the kaizen and just-in-time systems, workers’ commitment to management, etc.).

The second common feature among latecomers to industrialization is that they have to start by importing most industrial products. For some time they have to earn the foreign currency to pay for these imports through exports of primary products such as mineral and agricultural products. In order to reduce imports, the latecomer countries launch a policy of domestic production and import substitution, starting with relatively low-tech, labor-intensive industries. Consider, for instance, the case of textile products. If a country has just commenced domestic production of synthetic fiber products, that necessitates imports of the chemical raw materials, plus the machinery and equipment to process them. The country has to export textile products to get the necessary foreign currency for these imports, while also commencing production of chemical products and machinery at home.

A cycle consequently develops: from importing to domestic production, then to exporting (or overseas production), then to re-importing. At the same time it is important to establish a trade policy centered on import substitution and export promotion, and an industrial policy aimed at the protection and fostering of domestic industries. In short, trade and industry are inextricably interlinked. It follows that under the conditions of this first phase, with its dependence on imports and its need to conserve limited supplies of foreign currency, an important challenge for those who would catch up is the effective distribution and control of available economic resources. This means that a set of policy structures – regulations on trade, tariffs and investment, export-led industrialization, tie-ups with foreign capital to foster export-oriented industries, etc. – constitute another feature of catch-up industrialization.”

Industrial policy and Chinese development

The rapid growth and transformation of the Chinese economy since 1978, when policymakers began a programme of economic reforms, has been extraordinary. Up until the last few years, GDP growth averaged around 10% per year, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. This represents the largest episode of poverty reduction in human history. China, as the largest manufacturing nation, has become the ‘workshop of the world’.

With a population of 1.4 billion, and an economy relatively open to international trade, these changes have and will continue to have an enormous impact on the rest of the rest of the world. For this reason, we should take a great interest in China’s continuing evolution.

Donald Trump, both on the campaign trail and since becoming US President, has placed great emphasis on getting some sort of ‘better deal’ between the US and Chinese economies. His administration has criticised China for taking advantage of the US on trade and the use of technology. But should China’s rise be a worry in these respects? Or is the US being hypocritical? In fact today’s rich countries all intervened in the economy and used forms of trade, industrial and technology policy to promote their growth and enable periods of ‘catch up’ with those at the frontier. China has been no exception. Continue reading

Nicholas Kaldor on taxes and the illusion of incentives

Nicholas Kaldor was a post-Keynesian economist at Cambridge University and, during his final years in the 1980s, a devastating critic of the Thatcher government’s adherence to the doctrines of monetarism and ‘supply-side’ reform.

Here he is on tax cuts and incentives, taken from The Economic Consequences of Mrs Thatcher (1983), a collection of speeches made to the House of Lords (p. 9):

“Between 1880 and 1930, excluding the war years, hardly any new money was sunk into the coal industry or the iron and steel industry, and very little money – in comparison with Germany, not to speak of the United States – was put into the new technology industries which arose out of the invention of electricity, the motor car, heavy machinery, synthetic dye stuffs and other chemicals. Instead, vast sums were invested abroad. In some years during the Edwardian period, when home investment in manufacturing industry was almost zero, no less than 10 percent of our national income was invested abroad.

In those days there were incentives galore. However much Ministers may try to revive incentives through tax reductions, they can never hope to achieve the Victorian or Edwardian peaks in fiscal incentives, when income tax was not progressive and it was seven old pence in the pound or 3 percent instead of the present 33 percent. Yet with all those incentives, the economy was stagnating. If people think that we will now see miracles as a result of cutting income tax by, say, 3p or 6p in the pound, I can regretfully prophesy that it is more likely to make no difference whatever.

I have no doubt that without nationalisation we should have had the same situation after World War II as we had for 40 years before World War I and throughout a larger part of the inter-war years, and if one thinks that the period after World War II was bad, I can only say that in the opinion of all economic historians who have studied this matter seriously, the 20 years of the 1950s and 1960s showed more rapid economic progress and more rapid growth of productivity than any comparable 20 years in previous British history. That that was not just a reflection of a world trend is shown by the fact that while it was true of Britain, it was not true of Germany or the United States; in other words, their post-war record of productivity growth was no higher than had been achieved in previous periods. It was true in our case, and it is only in the last 10 years that our economic progress has broken down, for the reasons I mentioned (sic).”

Kaldor was not in favour of very high marginal rates of income tax, and instead favoured a progressive tax on consumption. However he was clear at the time that poor management was holding back British industry, and the problem, compared with our competitors, was ability rather than incentives.

Even today, the ‘burden’ of taxation in a number of European countries is higher than in Britain, and industrial performance has been notably more impressive. So other policies are more important, but successive Conservative and even Labour governments have failed to learn this.

All this remains relevant today, not least in the wake of the Trump tax cuts, and the turn to austerity in many countries in the wake of temporary fiscal stimulus following the 2008 crash. In Britain, cuts to public services were favoured over tax increases in the attempts to reduce the deficit. This surely reached its limit some time ago, with numerous crises across public services, from the health service to prisons.

A Keynesian case for industrial policy

DSC00234Keynesian economics emphasises the primacy of aggregate demand or expenditure in driving the growth of output and employment. More mainstream neoclassical Keynesians, and the New Keynesians, tend to argue that inadequate demand is a short run phenomenon. The more radical post-Keynesians argue that it can be a problem in the long run too.

To varying degrees, these economists make the case for demand management via some combination of monetary, fiscal and exchange rate policy. The more radically minded have also long argued for incomes policies to manage wage and price inflation, and reform to the international monetary system in order to allow national governments the space to manage demand and promote full employment while preventing excessive and destabilising current account imbalances.

While Keynesian economics focuses on demand and, traditionally, macroeconomics, industrial policy aims to impact more on the supply-side of the economy and draws on microeconomics. Continue reading

Profitability and investment – via Michael Roberts blog

An interesting take on the reasons for the continued weakness of investment and growth in the aftermath of the Great Recession. For Marxist Michael Roberts, it is mostly about the failure of the rate of profit to recover to pre-recession levels. The link to his post is below.

Recently, Larry Elliott, the economics correspondent of the British liberal newspaper, The Guardian raised again the puzzle of the gap between rising corporate profits and stagnant corporate investment in the major capitalist economies. Elliott put it “The multinational companies that bankroll the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos are awash with cash. Profits are strong. The return on […]

via Profitability and investment again – the AMECO data — Michael Roberts Blog