John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: economy



Interest rates are low, so it should be attractive for companies to borrow to invest in new products and markets.

But United States companies are not doing so to the hoped for extent. Instead they are spending about $500 billion every year buying back their own shares.

Share buy backs keep up the value of their shares, which is good for their shareholders.  But they are not all that beneficial to the economy, in so far as they reward holders of financial assets, without creating new job opportunities through investment. They also may increase inequality in US society, because shareholders tend to be better off than the average citizen.

 But do the Companies have a real choice here?

Companies should only invest if the risk/ reward ratio of the proposed investment is good. Investment is inherently riskier than share buy backs, so the prospective rate of return on the investment must be above a hurdle that is set in advance. A lot depends on prospective demand in the market place.  If society is ageing, there may be fewer, and most cautious, potential customers, and that raises the hurdle which a proposed investment must surmount.

A related uncertainty, discouraging investment decisions, is the long run growth potential of mature developed economies.

Is it 3% a year, as in the past 60 years, or just 1%, as it was in previous centuries?  Economists differ on this. Some technologies add measurably to growth and GDP, other just make life easier without adding to the same extent to GDP.

If the political future is uncertain, and there are threats of protectionism, that also increases the risk of any investment that depends on exports.  Brexit is a good example of this, and so is the volatility and seeming irrationality of voter behaviour in other countries, including the US.

Against this uncertain background, Central Banks are trying to stimulate the economy by cutting interest rates.  This is supposed to encourage investment by reducing its cost, but that is happening very slowly, if at all. It also means that governments can borrow very cheaply, which may tempt them into mistakes.

A persistent low interest rate policy undermines the financial models of insurance companies and pension funds, which have to pay insurance claims and pensions out of interest they get on investments. If the interest rates stay very low, the money may not be there to meet the pension and insurance obligations. This is a further economic uncertainty.

We now have a big mismatch between savings and investments. We have a surfeit of savings, chasing very few convincing investment opportunities

So the policy of low interest rates cannot continue forever.

If low interest rates are not stimulating the economy sufficiently, what can, or should, be done?

If companies are not investing, perhaps governments should step in to stimulate the economy by investing on their own account.  This is what was done during the Depression of the 1930’s in some countries, like Germany and the US.

Whereas privately owned companies have to be satisfied that an investment will yield a return to their own bottom line, a government can take a longer and broader view of the return on the investment it makes.

An investment by government is financially justifiable if the eventual return, in extra taxes paid at some stage in the future, as a result of the extra economic activity generated by the investment, exceeds the cost of servicing and repaying the extra debt undertaken.

It can also take non financial benefits into account if it is satisfied it will have no problem servicing its extra debts from other sources.

But because the factors to be taken into account in assessing a government investment are so much wider, the calculations to be made are much more subjective and uncertain.

For example, how does one compare the return on an investment in additional places in a university sociology faculty, with the return on an investment in improving a lightly trafficked road?

It all depends on future trends and needs, and a multiplicity of other factors which are matters of pure judgement.

There is, however, another limitation on government investment that must be considered…the impact of ageing on the solvency of governments, thirty or more years from now.

A government’s   debt/GDP ratio may be 90% or less today, and, on that basis, it may be able to justify borrowing more to invest more.

But some important future liabilities of governments are left out of these official Debt/GDP calculations.

Predictable future increases in public pension liabilities and age related expenditures generally are not included in the Debt/GDP ratio.

Apparently an average 64 year old consumes six times as much healthcare as an average 21 year old.

When, over the next 20 years, the number retired increases relative to the number at work, and the number of 64 year olds increases relative to the number of 21 year olds, the resultant increase in government spending, relative to its receipts, will worsen dramatically, unless policies are changed in the meantime.

The numbers aged 65 or over in Ireland will increase by 97% by 2060, as against an average increase of 60% in the EU as a whole. By then, on present policies, age related spending by government would absorb 8.7 percentage points more of GDP than it does  today, which is twice the average EU increase.

Most EU countries could see their debt to GDP ratios increase to 400% of GDP by 2050, if pension and age related policies are not changed.

Uncertainty about how this might be done is a factor holding back countries, like Germany, which seemingly can afford to invest more, from doing so, because Germany is ageing rapidly on the basis of  its historic low birth rate.

All this uncertainty is leading to stagnation.

I believe the best way to avoid stagnation induced by uncertainty would be for governments in developed countries to produce a comprehensive, demographically based, scenarios for the economy for the next 30 years.

These scenarios should set out the menu of decisions that  may need to be taken and the consequences of taking, or of not taking them.  Obviously the EU could coordinate some of this work and the assumptions used, but the choices to be set out would be for national politicians.

These scenarios would be extremely controversial and subject to vigorous questioning from all sides.  But they would orientate  politics towards the things we can actually change, and away from the localism, emotionalism, and xenophobia we are seeing at the moment in some countries.




The economist Jim O’Leary has circulated a postscript on the Irish General Election.
It is very good, says something new, and I am republishing it here so it gets a wider readership.
It shows that the description of the relative economic and fiscal policy positions of the two main parties, as set out in their manifestos, is completely different from the characterization of their policy stances during the campaign by the media and by one another.
It would appear that neither the media, nor the politicians themselves read, and added up the cost of, their own, and opposing party, manifestoes!
Here is what Jim wrote:
“I’ve just been doing a bit of digging into the election manifestoes of our two largest political parties in order to get a handle on how difficult it might be to bridge the ideological chasm between them. After all, Fine Gael is a party that sits firmly on the right of the spectrum and wants to slash taxes even if it means compromising standards of public service provision, while Fianna Fail has reinvented itself as a social democratic party with a more measured approach to reducing taxes and a much stronger commitment to the public sector. Or, at least, that’s how the narrative of the last few weeks would have it.

Well, the thrust of that narrative receives some slender support from the respective parties’ plans for government current spending.

FF proposed to devote €4.8bn to raising current spending over the next five years; the corresponding FG figure is €4.2bn. The difference between them hardly amounts to a whole hill of beans however, equating as it does to just about 1% of the current expenditure base. (Indeed, by this standard, the Sinn Fein plan to raise current spending by €6bn by 2021 doesn’t look dramatically out of kilter.)

On the other hand, FG is the more ambitious party in relation to investment spending having proposed an extra €4bn for the capital budget for the 2017-21 period, compared with FF’s €2.7bn.

So, if we just add current and capital together (and ignore their differential impact on the dreaded ‘fiscal space’), FG’s plans would result in higher public spending than FF’s. A slightly surprising conclusion when set against the prevailing narrative.
Much more surprising (indeed ‘surprising’ is an understatement of how it struck me when I discovered it a few days ago) is the comparison of the cost of the two parties’ proposals in relation to taxation.

The cost of the FF proposals? Just over €2.9bn.

And FG’s? A bit less than €2.5bn.

In other words, FF was proposing to devote almost €0.5bn more to tax cuts over the next five years than FG. If you don’t believe me, check the two sets of numbers in their respective manifestoes.

So much for FG being the ‘tax slashers’. The cost of their commitment to abolish USC, at  almost €3.5bn over the 2017-21 period, was to be offset by a net €1bn of increases elsewhere, including a 5% levy on incomes over €100k, a range of base-broadening measures for high earners, a steep hike in cigarette duties and a new tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. In contrast, FF’s more modest plans in respect of USC, costing €2.6bn, were to be accompanied by a net €300m of tax reductions in other areas.

It seems to me that FG’s proposal in relation to a single tax, the USC, was adopted as shorthand for its overall position on taxation (and was taken as emblematic of its attitude towards public service provision), and the rest of its tax platform was pretty well ignored.

Lazy analysis perhaps, but what else would one expect from hard-pressed(!) political commentators (not to mention political opponents).

What is bewildering is that FG made no serious attempt during the election campaign to counter what proved to be a damaging narrative.

Not once did a FG spokesperson say; ‘Hold on folks, Fianna Fail are actually proposing to cut taxes by more than we are!’ Or am I missing something?  “


The economy of Ukraine is a mess. It’s income per head is only half that of Russia.

Yet it has a balance of payment deficit of 8% of GDP. In other words, even though it has a low standard of living, it is not earning enough to pay for what it consumes.

Its government also has a deficit of 8% of GDP. The Government  pays subsidies to its coal industry and subsidizes gas consumption. But its pension payments are in arrears and it has not the money to meet its immediate debt repayments. Tax collection is poor.

There has been substantial embezzlement of government funds, and public contracts have not been allocated to the lowest bidders.

These problems were there when the Mrs Timoshenko was in power, and were not tackled then.

They must be tackled now, or any aid the EU, the IMF or the US might give will simply go down a black hole. Any aid programme will involve tough conditions, which will further reduce living standards in the short term, and living standards are already low.

Much is made of the ethnic conflict between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers. This should be put in proportion. When Ukraine voted originally to leave the Soviet Union, the proposition got 90% support, so the pro independence voters included a lot of Russian speakers.  The issue should not be seen in Cold War terms, as a sort of “Russia versus the West” struggle.

I heard the new Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk speak at a conference in Poland a few months ago.

He spoke out strongly for a truly independent Public Prosecutors office and an independent judiciary. He was against selective justice. He must live up to that now, and ensure that any prosecutions of members of the former regime are dictated solely by legally justifiable, and non political considerations, and that any law breaking by his own supporters is pursued with  similar vigour.

He also insisted that Russian should not be an official language of the country, alongside Ukrainian. Given that Russian is the first language of so many Ukrainian citizens, this seems to be an unproductive line to follow. Eastern Ukraine is Russian speaking, and the Crimea is predominantly ethnically Russian as well as Russian speaking.
It is also important to acknowledge that Russia may have some legitimate concerns of its own. For example, many Russians believe that Russian gas, transiting through Ukraine on the pipeline, is being stolen.

The  proposed  EU/Ukraine Association agreement is not a military alliance. Its value lies in the fact that  it will require Ukraine to overhaul its system of government in a way that will dramatically reduce corruption,  improve the rule of law, and improve growth prospects.  The Agreement does not prevent Ukraine  having a trade agreement with Russia, as well as with the EU.

There is no reason why the proposed EU/Ukraine Agreement should not benefit Russia too. A prosperous Ukraine will help the Russian economy, and  an unstable and impoverished Ukraine would be bad for ALL its neighbours.


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