There is one thing we need, all economists agree, to get us out of our financial and banking difficulties…..economic growth.
What ideas can we in Ireland contribute to the debate on how best to restore sustainable, robust, and fair economic growth to Europe’s economy?
The adjectives are interdependent.
Temporary growth, funded by unwise borrowing or inflation, would not be sustainable.
Nor would growth that ran down limited non renewable material resources be robust
Growth that enriched one section a community while leaving others behind would certainly not be fair, but it would, in practical terms, not be robust or sustainable either.
It is also important to specify what it is we want to see growing, when we aim for economic growth.
In statistical terms, an increase in numbers in hospitals or prisons adds to GDP, but it is not the sort of growth we are looking for.
Taking time off from paid work to look after children or sick relatives subtracts from GDP, but it does not subtract from human welfare, and may add substantially to it.
That is not an argument for abandoning GDP as a measure of growth, but it should be complemented by other measurements that look at resource sustainability, and at people’s own assessment of their wellbeing taking into account of things like their connectedness with their family and friends, their physical and mental health, and their sense of control of how they spend their time.
Some of these measures will be subjective, but just because something is subjective, does not make it less real.
Economic growth is really an expression of a society’s ability to adapt quickly to new opportunities or needs.
A flexible society will “grow” faster than an inflexible one.
But economic growth is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
A society that is contented and well ordered, and in which people enjoy democratic freedoms, may not need to grow quite as fast, to keep its people satisfied, as a society which does not enjoy these “non economic” advantages.
Perhaps China has to grow faster, to satisfy its people, than India does because Chinese citizens do not enjoy the same democratic freedoms as Indians do.
But the strange thing is that mainstream economists often have very little to say about what makes economies grow, at least before the growth happens.
They frequently can explain growth after the event, but not before.
FACTORS THAT PROMOTE ECONOMIC GROWTH
My sense is that growth occurs in an economy when six factors are present
1. Spare capacity and unused resources.
It is easier to get an economy to grow after a period of stagnation than on the back of a boom, because there will be more spare unused resources around at moderate cost after a period of stagnation.
There have been rapid recoveries in the past, for example after the second world war, but those rates of growth could not be sustained once full capacity had been achieved.
The rapid recovery after the economic troubles of the 1980s, and the currency crisis of 1993, in Ireland misled some people into thinking that those exceptional “bounce back” rates of growth could go on forever, and this mistake led them to borrow foolishly.
I believe there is considerable pent up consumer demand in the Irish economy at the moment, and when the people who have money feel confident they will start spending again. That will lead to a spurt in growth, which will not necessarily endure, although it will be very welcome when it happens.
During a downturn in an economy, scientists do not stop inventing, so when the upturn comes there is often a disproportionately large stock of readymade inventions waiting to be marketed. There is a great deal of unexploited scientific invention, especially in the pharmaceutical and energy fields, and a healthy European venture capital industry is vital to exploiting this as part of a strategy to promote economic growth.
2. A market for what one produces.
The EU provides a big potential market, but that potential will only be realised if consumers and businesses have the confidence to spend.
Creating confidence in the global economy is difficult, but one of the requirements for it is political stability, and a sense that the political leadership in Europe has a medium term plan.
That is beginning to take shape, but far too slowly.
For Ireland, a political agreement on a banking union in the EU is a vital national interest.
This is not so much because it may lead to some the banking debt taken on by the taxpayer may be relieved.
Compared to the amount we are saving on day to day interest to borrow to fund the excess of what we spend over what we raise in tax, the extra interest we pay on the bank related portion of our national debt is a smaller figure.
The really big gain for Ireland from an EU banking union being agreed is the huge boost in confidence it would give to the global and European economy, on which Ireland depends for its prosperity.
It is also important that the EU Single market, which was supposed to fully open twenty years ago, be fully completed. There are still barriers to business, especially in services, the professions and energy. New barriers are arising in banking. Retail banking cannot be conducted across borders because property rights differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This is a gross waste of scarce resources, at a time when EU can afford to waste nothing
2. A young population.
Young people are more innovative that older people, and they have more unmet needs. Both of these factors stimulate economic growth.
Ireland has a comparatively young population, many other euro area countries do not. The age profile is one of the reasons why some countries have a bigger medium term growth prospect than others.
The OECD has done some estimates of the annual growth potential of different counties for the period 2016 to 2025.
Whereas Germanys growth potential is estimated at only 1.2%, Greece’s and Netherlands both at 1.4%, and Italy’s at 1.4%, Spain’s is estimated to be 2.3%, Potrugal’s 2.1% and Ireland’s 2.7%.
Sustainable growth requires sustainable demographics, and policies and social values that depress the birth rate, by making it economically costly to have children, may boost shorter economic growth, but they are not compatible with sustainable long term growth in an economy. Families who have children are meeting the cost of educating the people whose work will pay the pensions of everybody else, including the pensions of those who do not incur the cost of having children and can save the money instead or spend it on themselves. A tax code that ignores the cost of having children is inequitable in this respect.
4 Available capital at moderate cost.
It is very difficult to set up or operate a business if banks are afraid to lend because they themselves are unable to access funds at moderate interest rates. That is the situation we are in now, in places like Ireland but also in the southern European euro member states.
Just as lax regulatory policies which fuelled the credit boom were both pro cyclical and disastrously mistaken, the present, severely contractionary, and exacting credit policies, which are just as pro cyclical, may be adding to the damage.
I am not talking about prudential regulation here, but about policies that progressively increase capital ratios at a time when the shock of recent losses is so seared into the memories of both lenders and borrowers, that they are most unlikely to repeat the mistakes of the 2000 to 2006 period, for a good while to come no matter what capital ratios are.
One must ask if the higher capital ratios proposed in Basel Three and Solvency Two make any sense in present circumstances. One must also ask if regulators fully comprehend the full impact on availability of money in our economy of the closing down of so called shadow banking and interbank lending.
I believe there is a need to clean up the banking system and liquidate unviable positions, but the last three hundred years of history have shown that we do need banking and credti, and a lot of it, if economic potential is to be realised. Without them, the West would never have developed and the Est would have continued to dominate economic activity in the globe, as it had done for two thousand years up to 1750.
5 A competitive workforce.
This means more than just moderate pay expectations and low rates of inflation.
It also means good skill levels, adaptability, and willingness to work in new ways.
It means having service professions where restrictive practices do not apply
believe Ireland has great strengths in this area. Our workforce, many of whom have worked abroad, and understand the needs of a competitive global market, are very willing to try new ways of doing things.
6 An efficient state.
If a country has poor security, poor tax collection, an inefficient legal system, a costly and ineffective health service, and an education service that emphasises the rights of education providers over the achievement of deeper understanding and higher competences by students, the country will not grow as quickly as it should.
Part of the challenge faced in Greece is that of reconstructing state institutions.
In Ireland , we also have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about the efficiency of our health and education systems.
“An efficient and effective public service is essential for a growing economy and we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about the efficiency of our health and education systems.
Reforms in these sectors are essential and I hope that the Government extracts long term meaningful reforms from the Croke Park Agreement. This week’s deal with consultants on more flexible working and rosteringneeds to be replicated across the heath and education sectors.
It is all about management of resources to obtain results. The tendency in the past was to put more resources into a service and hope for the best.
Between 1997 and 2009, there were increases in numbers in management grades in the civil service of 82%, while numbers generally rose by only 27%. Managers did not manage well enough. I believe that is now changing using the instruments of the Croke Park Agreement.
From 2000 on there were very big increases in the number working in, and spending by, the health service and one must ask oneself whether there have been commensurate improvements in health outcomes.
For example, between 2001 and 2006, the numbers employed in the health service increased by 20,000 people, and , between 2000 and 2009, the number of items prescribed in the GMS increased from 22 million items to 53 million. Did we become proportionately healthier during that period?
In education, between 2001 and 2006, the numbers employed increased by 27%, yet our comparative performance in international comparisons in science and mathematics has been slipping , and ” teaching for the test”, to game the Leaving Certificate points system, has distorted education.
I am in favour of compulsory Irish and time spent on teaching Irish in primary school is of course essential, but one must ask if it might not be better if some of that time(say 25%) ought not be diverted to science and mathematics. If students fall behind in those subject, particularly maths at primary level, they may never catch up.
We also need to ensure that the public service operates in a cohesive manner to achieve government objectives and live within budgets set for them by Government. If budgets are exceeded, there has either been a failure to estimate demand properly, or a failure to manage supply. Neither should happen.
My own experience of Government was that Departments of state focussed almost exclusively on their own goals, with little reference to the broader purposes of Government. In the US, they refer to this as government operating within vertical silos.
This failing places undue stress on the cabinet of the day as it is the only place where an overall view was being taken. I believe the Secretaries General of Government Departments should be required by law to come together on a weekly basis as a collective” implementation council” to ensure that government decisions are implemented coherently, and thoroughly.
This would go some distance towards removing the vertical silo problem.
Speech by John Bruton, President of IFSC Ireland, and President of the European Sustainable Materials Platform, at a meeting of ACCA in the Gibson Hotel Dublin at 4.15pm on 19 September