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Business investment is weak, but an unfunded company tax cut won’t fix it

As the mining boom winds down, Australia’s non-mining investment may not be enough to protect living standards. AAP/Rio Tinto

Business investment is weak, but an unfunded company tax cut won’t fix it

As the mining boom winds down, Australia’s non-mining investment may not be enough to protect living standards. AAP/Rio Tinto

Eight years after the global financial crisis (GFC), economic growth remains weak in many rich nations. Australia has been an exception to the malaise, but growth has slowed as the mining boom winds down.

Business investment is vital to economic growth and to lifting living standards, but a new Grattan report explores why Australian business investment is plummeting. Australia is now experiencing its biggest ever 5-year fall in mining investment, as a share of GDP. Non-mining business investment fell from 12% to 9% of GDP after 2009 and remains unusually low. Why is it low, and what should we do?

The shift to services has reduced investment

Most of the gap in investment between today’s non-mining investment rate and that of the early 1990s is due to long-term structural changes in the economy.

The non-mining market sector slowly became less capital intense, it shifted towards capital-light services, and it shrank as a share of GDP. Together, these factors have reduced non-mining business investment by almost 2% of GDP since the early 1990s. In the chart below, the decline in investment needed to offset “capital consumption” reflects declining capital intensity across the non-mining economy.

Non-mining investment.

These declines are benign. Many non-mining industries now require less capital per dollar of output than they did in the past, because equipment is better and cheaper, in part thanks to the rise of China as a manufacturer. The shift to capital-light services largely reflects households choosing to spend more of their income on these services as their incomes grow.

The role of output growth

A less benign factor, slow output growth, has cut non-mining investment by about a percentage point of GDP compared to 1990, and about two percentage points since the boom years of the mid-2000s, when above-trend growth and buoyant financial conditions drove very strong investment. The role of growth can be seen in the chart above.

In turn, output has grown more slowly for two reasons: slower potential output growth, and a widening gap between actual and potential output.

Actual and potential.

The potential growth rate of the economy has declined in recent years. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that potential GDP is now growing at just over 2.5% a year, about a percentage point below its pace between 1995 and 2004.

Potential growth (the rate of output if all resources are being used efficiently) has declined mainly because productivity growth has slowed and the working-age population is growing more slowly. Productivity growth was exceptionally weak between 2004 and 2010. It recovered in recent years, but remains weaker than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. The working-age population is growing more slowly, mainly because of a decline in net migration since its peak in about 2012 and, in part, because the population is ageing.

In addition, actual growth has been a bit slower than potential in recent years. The IMF estimates the gap between actual and potential output to be about 1.7% of GDP, though it is difficult to estimate with much precision. Several pieces of evidence suggest that actual output is below potential. Inflation is relatively weak and there is some spare capacity in the labour market. The capital stock is ample given the current level of output: office vacancy rates are high, while business capacity utilisation is close to its long-term average.

Transition from the mining boom may have made it difficult for the economy to operate at potential. As mining investment falls, demand for construction, in particular, weakens. In theory, as the terms of trade and mining investment decline, the real exchange rate and other prices can change to maintain full employment. But in practice, slow output growth is common after mining booms, perhaps because businesses and workers take some time to reassess their opportunities.

What next?

Looking ahead, if output growth remains subdued, the current level of non-mining business investment may be the “new normal”. If the economy continues to rebalance, non-mining investment is likely to increase. There are encouraging signs that non-mining investment responds to the exchange rate and other aspects of the business environment in the medium term: it has begun to pick up in NSW and Victoria. Output could even grow above potential for a few years, as the IMF and RBA both forecast. But investment is not likely to return to the levels of the mid-2000s.


Is a company tax cut the answer?

The government has proposed cutting the company tax rate from 30% to 25%, largely on the basis that the competition for mobile capital has intensified (see chart below). That would attract more foreign investment and could increase total business investment by up to half a percent a year. But such a cut would also reduce national income for years and would hit the budget. Committing to a tax cut before the budget is on a clear path to recovery risks reducing future living standards.

Company tax.

Other company tax changes could help. An allowance for corporate equity would make currently marginal investment projects more attractive, though highly profitable firms would pay more tax.

Accelerated depreciation would encourage investment, as would moving from today’s model to a cash flow tax. Both of them help firms to reduce tax paid at the time they make investments. But they would hit the budget hard in the early years, and would have to be phased in slowly.

An allowance for investment (for example, permitting firms to claim over 100% of depreciation) would support new investment without giving tax breaks on existing assets, but may be costly to administer, as firms could be tempted to relabel some operating expenditure as capital expenditure.

Government should ensure any company tax changes are offset by other tax increases or spending cuts.

What else should policymakers do?

Government stimulus and interest rate cuts can encourage business investment if there is spare capacity in the economy. Australia does have some spare economic capacity. But there are constraints on both arms of macroeconomic policy. The RBA is reluctant to cut interest rates from their already low levels, as it is concerned about risky lending. Public debt has grown (though it is still not high by international standards), though bank balance sheets remain large compared to GDP, limiting the scope to expand public sector debt.

Monetary policy should remain supportive, and tough prudential standards can help limit risky lending. There may be modest scope to build more public infrastructure, if governments can improve the quality of what they build.

Broader policies to support economic growth would also lead to more and better private investment. They include reducing tax distortions, boosting labour participation, encouraging competition, improving the efficiency of infrastructure and urban land use, tightening regulatory frameworks, and more reliable climate policy.

No single policy is a silver bullet, but together, they can help make better use of Australia’s existing assets and make new investment more attractive.