Using the budget to stimulate the economy was a mistake

Kaspar Oja
Economist at Eesti Pank
  •  Living standards in Estonia are at almost 80% of the European Union average
  • Further growth in the economy will be restrained by the fall in investment by companies and the slow growth in productivity
  • The economy continues to grow faster than its long-term sustainable rate
  • Labour shortages would have been less of a problem if the government had not given the economy a boost

Statistics Estonia estimates that GDP was up over the year by 3.7% in the second quarter and by 1.4% over the first quarter, adjusted seasonally and for the calendar. Data from earlier years were adjusted and showed that living standards in Estonia have reached almost 80% of the European Union average. The problem for the economy though is the fall in investment by companies and the slow growth in productivity.

The upward adjustment of GDP for 2016 and 2017 by almost 3% supports the opinion that the Estonian economy has been running at a high rate for some time now. This means it was a mistake to use additional fiscal measures to stimulate the economy in 2017. As the public and private sectors are competing for the same resources, the state giving the economy an additional boost during good times can squeeze out private sector projects. It is probable that labour shortages would have been less of a problem for businesses had the government not stimulated the economy.

Although the growth in the economy was slower last year, it continues to be faster than the long-term sustainable rate for the Estonian economy. The rapid growth has until now been supported by increased participation in the labour force and growth in employment, but growth in productivity has been slow. Labour productivity rose by only one per cent in the second quarter. As the labour force participation rate in Estonia is already quite high compared to the rates in other European countries, it is unlikely that employment can continue to increase in the same way in the longer term. If productivity does not rise faster, the economy will grow more slowly in future.

Productivity growth requires investment, but earlier data for GDP show that investment by companies has fallen. However, the good times in the economy should favour growth in investment. The fall in investment may have been partly caused by the orders from the state, though rapid growth in construction of residential property has also squeezed orders from companies out of the market. This is probably not the only cause of the fall in investment by companies though, as total investment has also fallen.

That said, it is not impossible that corporate investment has simply been underestimated. The GDP revision that raised GDP by almost 3% for 2016 and 2017 was accompanied by a substantial upwards revision in the data for corporate investment. Repeated corrections to the GDP figures in the same direction and an initial underestimation of GDP pose the risk that economic policy decisions are taken on the wrong foundations and can knock the economy out of balance. This makes it imperative that the accuracy of statistical estimates be improved and that economic policy decisions be taken following thorough analysis.


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