Weekly Economic Briefing

It's the capex stupid

14 February 2017

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One of our most important macroeconomic calls for this year is that there will be a broad-based pick-up in fixed non-residential business investment. From a short-term perspective, stronger capex is necessary to help offset the impact of the modest slowdown in consumer spending we expect due to higher headline consumer price inflation crimping household’s purchasing power and underpin the more optimistic 2017 growth and revenue forecasts now baked into asset prices. From a longer-term perspective, it is necessary to drive up growth in the country’s capital stock and labour productivity, both of which have slumped over the past decade (see Chart 2), and increase our confidence that healthy asset returns can be sustained.

Capital shortfall...
...but better times ahead

Though it is still early days, our view has been bolstered by recent data. Core capital goods orders have been on an upward trend since May and shipments are now following with their traditional lag. As a result, equipment investment returned to growth in Q4 for the first time since 2015. A meaningful proportion of the slump in equipment investment over previous quarters was due to the 7% decline in transportation equipment investment (mostly heavy trucks) related to the 2014-15 collapse in oil prices. With crude oil prices having stabilised between $50-60/barrel and US oil production growing again, the cycle is turning back up. As a consequence, both transportation equipment investment, and investment in mining exploration, shafts and wells (which had fallen by two-thirds from its mid-2014 peak) increased in Q4. Neither is likely to hit its pre-oil shock levels, but it does not have to; simply stabilising while other categories of investment continue on their upward trajectories will be sufficient for aggregate investment to continue rising. Indeed, the San Francisco Fed’s Tech Pulse Index, which is a leading indicator of the technology investment cycle, has accelerated in recent months, and the Philadelphia Fed’s Future New Orders Diffusion Index, which tends to lead the equipment investment cycle, has also jumped in recent months (see Chart 3).

How might changes in government policy alter this picture? While we are sceptics of claims that corporate tax cuts will pay for themselves, empirical evidence supports the view that meaningful reductions in effective corporate tax rates, combined with reforms to make the overall corporate tax system more efficient, should boost firms’ capital spending. This is the same for any regulatory changes that increase credit availability to small and medium-sized firms, or reduces restrictions on the exploration, production and use of fossil fuels. That said, the former should be done in a way that does not reduce the stability of the financial system, and the latter would be socially suboptimal in a world of accelerating climate change. Harder to gauge is the impact of the new administration’s ‘America First’ trade and immigration strategy. The pressure on corporates to expand domestic rather than foreign operations has clearly increased, which could deliver some short-term benefits. But the evidence is clear that in the long run any policies that raised barriers to trade with other countries, reduced the net inflow of productive immigrants, incentivised more oligopolistic industrial structures, or simply forced firms to account more for political risks, are likely to weigh on investment and hence aggregate trend growth.

Jeremy Lawson, Chief Economist

 
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