A striking feature of the recent Quarterly National Accounts was the dramatic fall in real investment: a 30.6 percent decline between 2007:Q4 and 2008:Q4. The growth in real GDP over the same period was -7.5 percent. Real investment contributed -7.3 percentage points (pp) to this change based on a standard decomposition with 2007:Q4 expenditure shares as weights. [The contributions of the other components were: consumption (-2.0 pp); government spending (+0.1 pp); inventory investment (-1.8 pp); and net exports (+3.5 pp).] It is worth noting that this dramatic fall in investment spending was not confined to building and construction. In its recent Quarterly Bulletin, the Central Bank reports that overall real investment fell by 32.5 percent in 2008 (year-over-year), with building and construction investment down 35.3 percent, and machinery and equipment investment down 23.0 percent.
Of course, investment is well known to be a volatile component of GDP. Even so, the large decline raises concerns both because of its role in driving output below potential and also its influence on the medium-term growth path of that potential. It is worthwhile to consider, then, what policies might be used to support private investment spending.
One contributing factor to the decline is the contraction in the supply of credit. Indeed, one of the central motivations for policy interventions to strengthen the balance sheets of the banks is to increase their willingness and capacity to lend. The Central Bank’s recent Bulletin does report a modest tightening of reported credit standards between 2008:Q3 and 2008:Q4. But the explanation for the tightening of standards is likely to lie at least as much in the problems with the balance sheets of the borrowers as with the banks. Moreover, the deterioration in business net worth, profitability and cash flow are likely to have significantly curbed the demand for credit, explaining part of the decline in credit aggregates.
We thus need to look beyond banking policy to policy actions that might strengthen the financial condition of the non-financial business sector. In considering possible policy actions, it is worth keeping in mind the well-supported finding from investment research that cash flow is strongly related to investment spending – particularly for smaller, less creditworthy businesses. This is explained by various agency problems that make it hard to raise funds from financial intermediaries – problems that become more intense as the balance sheets of borrowers and the banks become weaker.
These findings suggest the importance of examining policies that improve business cash flow. Given the beating that business profitability has taken, cuts in corporate tax rates or investment-related tax breaks would be unlikely to have a strong stimulative effects. However, one policy that would directly improve the cash flow (and after-tax profitability) of almost all businesses is a temporary cut in employer PRSI rates for all workers. (Fine Gael has proposed a cut for new hires. But this would have a very limited impact on the underlying cash flow position of businesses.) It is hard to think of another single policy with more potential to ease the pressure on investment, production, and employment.