Investment Flows

October 18, 2015

When economists tally up the output or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country, they use an agreed upon accounting identity: GDP = C + I + G + NX where C = Consumption Spending, I = Investment or Savings, G = net government spending, and NX is Net Exports, which is sometimes shown as X-M for eXports less iMports. {Lecture on calculating output}

In past blogs I have looked at the private domestic spending part of the equation – the C.  Let’s look at the G, government spending, in the equation.  Let’s construct a simple model based more on money flows into and out of the private sector.  Let’s regard “the government” as a foreign country to see what we can learn.  In this sense, the federal, state and local governments are foreign, or outside, the private sector.

The private sector exchanges goods and services with the government sector in the form of money, either as taxes (out) or money (in).  Taxes paid to a government are a cost for goods and services received from the government. Services can be ethereal, as in a sense of justice and order, a right to a trial, or a promise of a Social Security pension.  Transfer payments and taxes are not included in the calculation of GDP but we will include them here.  These include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other social programs.  If the private sector receives more from the government than the government takes in the form of taxes, that’s a good thing in this simplified money flow model. There are two types of spending in this model: inside (private sector) and outside (all else) spending.

Let’s turn to investment, the “I” in the GDP equation.  In the simplified money flow model, an investment in a new business is treated the same as a consumption purchase like buying  a new car.  Investment and larger ticket purchase decisions like an automobile depend heavily on a person’s confidence in the future.  If I think the stock market is way overpriced or I am worried about the economy, I am less likely to invest in an index fund.  If I am worried about my job, I am much less likely to buy a new car.  In its simplicity this model may capture the “animal spirits” that Depression era economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about.

We like to think that an investment is a well informed gamble on the future.  Well informed it can not be because we don’t know what the future brings.  We can only extrapolate from the present and much of what is happening in the present is not available to us, or is fuzzy.  While an investment decision may not be as “chanciful” as the roll of a dice an investment decision is truly a gamble.

Remember, in the GDP equation GDP = C + I + G + NX, investment (the I in the equation) is a component of GDP and includes investments in residential housing. In the first decade of this century, people invested way too much in residential housing.

In the recession following the dot-com bust and the slow recovery that followed the 9-11 tragedy, private investment was a higher percentage of GDP than it is today, six years after the last recession’s end.  Much of this swell was due to the inflow of capital into residental housing.

The inflation-adjusted swell of dollars is clearly visible in the chart below.  It is only in the second quarter of this year that we have surpassed the peak of investment in 2006, when housing prices were at their peak.

Investment spending is like a game of whack-a-mole.  Investment dollars flow in trends, bubbling up in one area, or hole, before popping or receding, then emerging in another area.  Where have investment dollars gone since the housing bust?  An investment in a stock or bond index is not counted as investment, the “I” in the equation, when calculating GDP.  The price of a stock or bond index can give us an indirect reading of the investment flow into these financial products.  An investment in the stock market index SP500 has tripled since the low in the spring of 2009 {Portfolio Visualizer includes reinvestment of dividends}

Now, just suppose that some banks and pension funds were to move more of those stock and bond investments back into residential housing or into another area?

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