BY THOMAS DEVITT, ECONOMIST, GEOGRAFIA
ECONOMIC MULTIPLIERS ARE SHRINKING
Economists often use input-output modelling to measure the broader economic impacts of a single event. If, for example, a $100 million construction project is announced, we can insert that $100m
into the model, and it tells us how the effect of that construction activity would spread to the rest of the economy.
The difference between the initial construction injection and the broader impact is called the ‘multiplier’.
But in recent years, the assumed multiplier in inputoutput modelling has been falling, meaning that individual investments by industry and/or government are having smaller and smaller knock-on effects on
the economy. Why?
Well one explanation lies with globalisation – specifically the globalisation of supply chains. Businesses no longer source all their inputs locally. They can buy machinery from Germany, parts from
Bangladesh, and technical expertise from the US. Even one’s workforce can be sourced from interstate or overseas.
This means that, even when money is invested in one area, it ‘leaks’. This results in ever smaller general impacts in the location in which the
investment was initially made.
THE LOCAL MANIFESTATION OF THIS – LOCAL GOVERNMENT EXPENDITURE LEAKAGE
Western Australian regional city, Greater Geraldton, for example, suffers from significant economic ‘leakage’. A project we undertook last year calculated business ‘leakage’ alone of $1.24b, much of which
was from the Manufacturing sector (Figure 1). Returning to our construction project above, $100m there would result in only a $31m direct economic impact and a $65m flow-on impact ($96m total –
still smaller than the initial injection). Many of the benefits would be felt elsewhere. Consequently, the broader economic impact was only larger than the initial injection when you include the positive impacts
Not surprisingly, Geraldton residents spend a lot of money outside of Geraldton. A small regional city (Greater Geraldton’s population is around 40,000) just does not have the goods and services available
to meet local need.
Outer metropolitan municipalities offer a variation on this theme. They are notorious for out-commuting. And as residents leave every day to work closer in to the city centre, they spend a considerable proportion of their income outside of their home municipality. Let’s take Casey in outer metropolitan Melbourne. With a population of 300,000, we can use bank transaction data to see they spent upwards of $250m just in the month of December 2016. Leakage at that rate in Greater Geraldton would result in around $340m in resident escape expenditure in Greater Geraldton (compared with the $299m we actually measured). An annual loss of $41m in an economy the size of Greater Geraldton’s would be a serious hit on local jobs, services and amenities.
As per our construction example above, just $84m in total would be captured locally if the $100m project occurred in Casey.
MORE LEAKAGE, MEANS SMALLER MULTIPLIERS AND LESS LOCAL IMPACT
This kind of leakage has significant implications for the economic viability of investment projects. A local government is going to have a harder time justifying a project if they can’t demonstrate through
input-output modelling that a large proportion of the benefits from such a project will remain in the local area.
There are also implications for economic recovery after crises. The standard Keynesian approach says that during a recession, fiscal multipliers are especially high and therefore, particularly effective at reviving a lagging economy. In the US, those multipliers have indeed been strong in recent years, justifying a stronger fiscal policy response to an economy that was, until recently, underperforming.
But the US is an enormous economy, so their domestic supply chains are well-established and diverse, resulting in minimal economic ‘leakage’ and strong fiscal multipliers. But for smaller, internationally open economies such as Australia, fiscal policy may be less effective at kick-starting a slumping economy.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
And this brings me to the solution – self-sustainability vs. cooperation.
In the case of Greater Geraldton, a significant amount of their ‘leakage’ could be clawed back (we estimated about $259m of the $1.24b in business leakage). This can be done by identifying industries where the volume of leakage is so high, it demonstrates a large local market that could be used to entice (and support) a new business to invest locally. ‘Buy local’ policies could be used to support
these businesses. Equally, population growth will help meet more of the local workforce needs. This increased self-sufficiency would help contain a much larger share of any investment directed at Geraldton. Leakage would be minimised, and multipliers would be higher.
Entire nations have even greater potential to contain leakage by diversifying into more industries along their supply chains, thereby reducing reliance on imported inputs. Investment in education and training can also reduce reliance on foreign skilled labour.
Of course, this kind of self-sustainability is not always possible or advisable. Capital City CBDs for example, are major financial and business hubs – and should remain so. Trying to stimulate
their economies by increasing the local resident population, thereby reducing the need to import labour from the rest of the city, will likely detract from its commercial advantages. Yes, it may retain more
of its local resident expenditure, but this will reduce floorspace available for commercial use.
And even nationally, it is often not advisable for an economy to try to specialise in everything. Firstly, in a developed country such as Australia, where the private sector hasn’t already developed such activity, this would require the government to ‘pick winners’. This has been successful in the past (sometimes), but it’s a risky option.
Furthermore, often it is just better to import things that other countries are better at doing (like labourintensive manufacturing from Bangladesh), rather than dedicating resources to an industry in which
we will probably never reclaim our competitive advantage (and potentially taking resources away from our real advantages).
Consequently, if self-sufficiency is not possible or advisable, cooperation is needed. If Greater Geraldton needs an economic boost but ‘leakage’ is a concern, fiscal support from the State Government is justified. This way, Geraldton benefits from added assistance, Perth will benefit, given many of Geraldton’s inputs would be sourced from Perth, and, in a positive feedback loop, Perth would potentially buy more goods and services from Geraldton. So, when a small area is susceptible to leakage, the broader area that benefits from this leakage should also assist.
Nationally, this requires global cooperation. During the post-GFC slump in the developed world, efforts by individual countries to stimulate their economies fiscally (if they existed) would have leaked somewhat, having less impact locally. But through international cooperation, nations could have coordinated their fiscal policy programs, with all nations benefitting from the leakage of other nations, via the modern world’s globalised supply chains.
The solution, as is often the case, will require a balance. Places, big and small, should not become so overly specialised that they are vulnerable to external shocks, and virtually unaffected by local fiscal stimulus. But at the same time, the benefits of globalisation should not be unwound by attempting to become completely self-sufficient in areas of competitive/comparative disadvantage.
A global economy requires global cooperation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom has spent the last five years as an economist with several national economic consulting firms, before joining Geografia in July 2017. He contributes to, and project manages the research, analysis and
presentation of many projects to assist with policy formulation.
Tom’s expertise is in macroeconomic analysis and regional economic development planning. He focuses on mining and resources, property markets, tourism and accommodation and agriculture. He is proficient in economic modelling and data analysis, as well as consultation with government, industry and community.
Tom also undertakes his own economic and political research to further his understanding areas including financial crises (the Great Depression, the Global Financial Crisis, etc.), monetary and fiscal policy, income inequality, globalisation, exchange rate regimes, political economics, international financial markets/ banking systems, international demographic trends, and international economic and political anomalies and history