Monday, September 25, 2017

Explaining the rapid growth in GNI*

When modified Gross National Income, or GNI*, was published by the CSO in July it was welcomed as a step forward in our understanding of the underlying performance of the Irish economy.  There is no doubt it gave a better measure of the level of the Irish economy but there was some disquiet about the growth rates it implied.  The nominal growth rates of GNI* for 2014 , 2015 and 2016 are estimated to be 8.0 per cent, 11.9 per cent and 9.4 per cent which were “too hot” for many tastes.

We poked around this and unsurprisingly the issue seems to arise in the non-financial corporate sector as shown in this table looking at Gross National Income since 2011 making the * adjustments for depreciation on certain foreign-owned assets and the net income of redomiciled PLCs to the NFC sector.

GNI star by sector

The 9.4 per cent nominal growth rate for 2016 is shown in the bottom right hand corner.  We can see that reasonably plausibly growth rates are estimated for the household, government and financial corporate sector but the 22.5 per cent growth rate for the non-financial corporate sector does not seem right.  Looking a longer series of GNI* for the NFC sector shows how rapid the recent growth has been.

GNI star for NFCs

In 2016, nominal GNI* for the NFC sector was twice what it was at the peak of the boom.  It is probably worth noting what is not in GNI*. In rough terms GNI* is got from:

  • Value of Output
    • less Intermediate Consumption
  • equals Gross Value Added
    • less Compensation of Employees
  • equals Gross Operating Surplus
    • plus net factor flows
  • equals Gross National Income
    • less net income of redomiciled PLCs
    • less depreciation on foreign-owned IP assets
    • less depreciation on aircraft for leasing
  • equals modified Gross National Income, GNI*

So GNI* should not include the profits of foreign-owned MNCs (which will be picked up by net factor flows – distributed profits and retained earnings) and also gross income attributed to Ireland through redomiciled PLCs or the depreciation of certain foreign-owned assets.  GNI* should give a good indication of the gross income of the “Irish” business sector. 

It might be instructive to pull a few measures out of the national accounts to try and see what is going on.  From the national accounts we will look item 4 from Table 1 of the NIE  which is the domestic trading profits of companies (including corporate bodies) before tax and from the Balance of Payments we will take the Current Account outflows of direct investment income on equity.

Domestic Profits v Outflows of Income

So in general terms we have the profits (after depreciation but before tax) generated by businesses in the Irish economy and the outflows of profits attributed to direct investors.  We won’t be too prescriptive about what the difference represents but in rough terms it gives us the net profits generated in Ireland that stay in Ireland and, as such, are included in GNP and GNI.  So why has this exploded recently?

The key problem is that of scale and concentration.  Issues in the statistics that would be little more than noise for most countries are amplified in the case of Ireland because of the nature of the MNC presence here.  And for the past few years the issues have all affected the figures in the table in the same direction: they have increased the growth in the difference between them which in turn has increased the growth of GNI*.

The first issue is one of data and coverage.  The Balance of Payments estimates are the result of survey data from the companies while the National Accounts figures come more from administrative date (from sources such as the Revenue Commissioners etc.).

The second issue is the treatment of depreciation.  Both of the figures above are measures of profit after depreciation but the National Accounts use the “perpetual inventory method” as the basis for the depreciation figure used whereas depreciation for Balance of Payments purposes is more closely aligned with the accounting treatment in the companies’ accounts.

Although these could impact the figures in any direction it seems for 2014 they increased the estimated outflows of profits in the Balance of Payments relative to the estimate of profits shown in the National Accounts.  This drove down the level of the difference shown above for 2014.  These data and depreciation issues unwound somewhat by 2016 and the difference moved closer to what it “should” be but this, of course, meant the growth is higher than would otherwise have been the case.

Between 2014 and 2016 the difference in the measures shown above increased by about €18 billion (from €18.3 billion to €36.6 billion).  According to the CSO around €4 billion of this was the result of issues with the data coverage and depreciation methods outlined above but there is nothing systematic about these impacts and there is no reason their impact could not have been in the other direction.

There are two issues that are systematic – the impact of taxation and the treatment of research and development expenditure.

The National Accounts measure shown in the second table is profit before tax while the Balance of Payments gives a measure of the profit attributed to direct investors after tax.  It is only natural that the absolute gap would increase as profits increase due to the impact of Corporation Tax.  This accounts for a further €1 billion of €18 billion change in the difference.  GNI has been growing because we are collecting more Corporation Tax.

The final issue is probably the most serious and results in a systematic error in the figures.  The error arises from the internationally-agreed methodologies rather than anything idiosyncratic that the CSO are doing.  The reasons are not clear but the National Accounts and Balance of Payments methodologies have different treatments for expenditure on research and development activities.

In the Balance of Payments R&D spending is treated as intermediate consumption while in the National Accounts R&D spending is considered a capital item.  The difference is between a cost that reduces profits versus a subsequent use of profits generated for investment.  As a result of this, the Balance of Payments will give a lower estimate of profits compared to that which arises in the National Accounts and if R&D spending grows the difference between them grows. 

So has R&D spending from Ireland on activities elsewhere being growing? Yip. 

Research and Development Imports

The table starts with total imports of R&D from the Balance of Payments.  This figure has been incredibly volatile recently and most of this is due to the lumpy nature of acquisitions of intellectual property products (intangible assets).  We can get the figures for these outright purchases of intangible assets in Annex 4c of the Quarterly National Accounts.  The residual approximates imports of R&D services, that is payments made from Ireland for R&D activities that take place somewhere else.  Almost all of this is undertaken by foreign-owned MNCs.

We can see that this grew by €5 billion between 2014 and 2016 and stood at €11.5 billion in 2016.  This figure is subtracted as a cost from the profit estimate used in the Balance of Payments.  In the National Accounts it is not taken as a cost but appears as a capital item much further down the accounts.  There is a substantial, and growing, difference between the National Accounts and Balance of Payments profit measures.

What does this mean for the figures? Well, go back to the schema for GNI* outlined above.  The estimate of profits generated (Gross Operating Surplus) comes from the National Accounts and the estimate of net factor flows is taken from the Balance of Payments.  So the National Accounts profits generated in Ireland are higher to the extent they don’t subtract R&D spending as a cost and the Balance of Payments outflows of profits to direct investors are lower because they do. 

This means that in 2016 around €11.5 billion of R&D investment was counted as coming from “Irish” income even though it was funded by MNC profits and any resulting profits will not benefit Irish residents outside of any tax that may be collected on them.

It is a hard circle to square.  One approach would be to estimate profit outflows for Balance of Payments purposes before accounting for R&D spending on activities elsewhere, thus making outbound profits higher.  Doing this through retained earnings would lead to an inflow of direct investment in the financial account and those monies could then be treated as been used to fund the R&D spending.  This would have no net impact on the overall Balance of Payments but would reduce the current account balance.  Outbound factor flows should reflect monies that are distributed or available for distribution but that is not the case here as the money is being used to fund R&D activities.

However, it does not seem right that imports of R&D services by foreign companies should be counted as coming from national income but that is what is implied by the current inconsistency between the National Accounts and Balance of Payments methodologies.  This holds for all countries not just Ireland but again scale and concentration amplifies the impact in the case of Ireland. Correcting this anomaly would knock a couple of percentage points of the recent growth of GNI* and would also bring down the level of GNI* (how’s that debt ratio??).  This may happen if the different treatment is as a result of paragraph 1.51(a) of the ESA2010 manual.

1.51 (a) the recognition of research and development as capital formation leading to assets of intellectual property. This change shall be recorded in a satellite account, and included in the core accounts when sufficient robustness and harmonisation of measures is observable amongst Member States;

As well as looking at the growth of GNI* we also had a poke around for an underlying current account balance.  Adding an adjustment for the acquisition of IP assets to the * star adjustments gave us this:

Adjusted Modified Current Account Annual

As we said then, this seemed plausible up to 2014 but the improvements since then did not.  Well now we know.  There are some data and depreciation issues having an effect but the biggest issue is the treatment of R&D spending by MNCs.  The figure above shows a surplus of €13 billion for 2016 but included in that was a large amount of MNC profits that were used for R&D spending.  Accounting for that would hugely erode the surplus shown above but there still would be some improvement in the current account as all years would be pushed down.   The macroeconomic position is improving, just not to the extent that the current estimates of GNI* might imply. 

We started off with an €18 billion increase in the difference between profits generated in the economy and those attributed to non-resident direct investors.  What we have seen here is that about two-thirds of that is the result of data and methodological issues, of which the most significant is the treatment of spending on R&D activities. 

That still leaves one-third of that €18 billion as a real increase.  The profits of Irish companies have increased in the past few years and Corporation Tax receipts from all classes of company have increased and these account of maybe €6 or €7 billion of the increase we have been trying to explain.  The impact all this would have on the growth rates of GNI* is hard to tell but real rates of around six per cent would seem likely. Goldilocks would be pleased.

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