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COMMENT: Fixing fixed-investment

Governments should make it harder for companies buying back shares without paying dividends

By Jim O’Neill

Back in February, I noted that the global economy at the end of 2016 was in a stronger cyclical position than most people had expected, given the political upheavals of the previous 12 months. That upward momentum carried through to the first quarter of 2017. According to the latest “nowcast”-type indicators, world GDP growth is exceeding 4% – perhaps the strongest performance seen since before the 2008 financial crisis.

Still, some observers – and not just chronic pessimists – have countered that the evidence remains anecdotal, and that it is impossible to predict how long the current economic moment will last. Indeed, there have been other periods in the long post-2008 recovery when growth returned, only to peter out quickly and become sluggish again.

To bolster long-term economic growth, business investment will have to increase. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. In Western economies in particular, non-residential fixed investment is precisely the factor that was missing in previous, short-lived cycles of acceleration.

No one can say for sure why non-residential business investment has failed to recover in recent years. But I suspect that the slightly pessimistic conventional wisdom on this question is wrong.

The conventional argument asserts that wary CEOs have come to see long-term risks as “just not worth it.” The many uncertainties they face include concerns about excessive regulation, burdensome corporate taxation, high debt levels, erratic policymaking, the political backlash against globalisation, and doubts that consumer spending outside (or even within) the United States will last.

A less pessimistic view holds that, after 2008, it became inevitable that the global economy would unhitch itself from the U.S. consumer engine and adjust to the rise of emerging consumer economies, not least China. When that happens, we can all live happily ever after.

I tend to side with this less pessimistic crowd. As I pointed out in March, China’s economy did surprisingly well in the first quarter of 2017, and that seems to be the case in the second quarter as well. In fact, China’s latest monthly data show signs of economic acceleration, especially in consumption. And it was evident in the first-quarter data that Chinese consumers are becoming an increasingly important driver of economic growth.

When confronted with the numbers, pessimists respond by insisting that China’s recent strong economic performance is only temporary – a product of yet more unsustainable stimulus. And even if growth does last, they argue, the Chinese authorities will not allow Western businesses – or even Chinese businesses, according to ultra-pessimists – to benefit from it. But whether or not the pessimists turn out to be right about China, it is odd that business investment remains tepid even during times when the engine of global growth is located elsewhere, such as in the U.S. or Europe (Germany in particular).

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