We have often argued at The Current Moment that what is missing in both the US and Europe is a real plan about how to make these economies grow. The political right points to the need for tax cuts; the left prefers state-funded jobs programmes. Neither addresses the problem of a languishing private sector, where firms are sitting on cash rather than reinvesting it. Central banks have tried to stimulate the economy by pushing down interest rates as way of stimulating private borrowing. As argued before (here), quantitative easing has not had the desired effect.
One response to the current problems is to point to the need to get consumers spending again. Firms are sitting on cash because they are gloomy about the future: without more buoyant demand, more investment will only mean the production of unsold goods. Critics of the austerity measures being pushed through across Europe often frame their opposition in terms of its effect on demand: how can European economies grow if the continent’s consumers are being hit with new taxes, cuts in welfare incomes and job losses?
This consumption-oriented view of growth is worth comparing with the growth experiences of the emerging markets. Growth does not just come from consumption. In fact, things look rather different if you look outside of the US and Western Europe. Take China. In its recent World Economy report, The Economist notes that the percentage of the gross national product that is consumed has fallen steadily in China since the 1970s.
If we were to map China’s annual growth figures on the graph, the relationship between consumption and growth would be an inverse one: a rise in the latter as the former has fallen. This makes sense if we look at how Chinese investment decisions are made. Capital is channelled via state-controlled banks into production. The percentage of the GDP that is reinvested is remarkably high in China: around 50% of GDP. It is on average half of that in OECD countries.
One way of looking at the contemporary slump in Western Europe and the US is through the lens of productive investment rather than that of consumption. The Chinese model has its own limitations, not least its reliance upon the demand for its exports in overseas markets. China is also at a different stage of its development, meaning that we are not comparing like with like. But it is nevertheless useful as a way of generating different sorts of questions. In what ways are investment decisions made? By whom and with what goals exactly? And crucially, how has the role of financial intermediaries changed over time and what impact have those changes had on investment? We don’t have answers to these questions yet but they are a good place to start when thinking about the growth problems in contemporary Europe and in the US.