Fiscal Policy and the Rate of Profit

For Marx, the most important tendency of a capitalist economy is the ‘law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit’ (LTFRP). This ‘law’ is often misinterpreted as referring to a permanent fall in the rate of profit, but it actually refers to a tendency that is overcome periodically through crises. Marx argued that during an expansionary phase, there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall until a crisis point is reached, after which capital values collapse, cheapening prospective investments. This revives profitability and paves the way for a new expansionary phase. Crises, while causing widespread hardship – including bankruptcies, mass unemployment and poverty – play a functional role under capitalism of restoring profitability for those capitalists, now fewer in number, who survive the process.

Marx’s tendency emerges out of the internal logic of capital. In a modern monetary system, capital itself operates within a broader institutional framework shaped by currency-issuing government. As a matter of accounting, the government’s fiscal policy has a direct relationship with realized aggregate profit. Moreover, since the average rate of profit can be expressed as the ratio of aggregate profit to the amount of money capital tied up in production, it follows that fiscal policy is also directly related to the average realized rate of profit. While Marx’s profit-rate tendency, if operative, cannot be overcome indefinitely, it can be attenuated to a degree through fiscal policy (this possibility is touched on in an earlier post, Thinking in a Macro Way).

Fiscal policy, by affecting income, also influences the level of private saving. Considering that the domestic private sector as a whole is deeply in debt and so is likely to pursue a financial surplus by attempting to spend less than its income, fiscal policy has a significant role to play in restoring private-sector balance sheets.

The purpose of this post is to trace connections between fiscal policy, the rate of profit and net private saving, and to draw out basic policy implications.

Marx’s tendency for the rate of profit to fall

If, for simplicity, we abstract from fixed capital, then the average value rate of profit, r, in Marx’s theory is:

r = s / (c + v)

c is constant capital (value transferred from plant, machinery, raw materials)
v is variable capital (value advanced for the employment of workers)
s is surplus value (value created by workers in excess of v)

Value can be expressed in amounts of socially necessary labor or equivalent monetary amounts. The formula says that the average rate of profit is equal to surplus value (s) divided by the value productively advanced by capitalists (c + v). For instance, if capitalists advance $80 in c and $20 in v, resulting in the production of $120 in value and surplus value of $20, the rate of profit is 20/100 = 20%.

For Marx, c (plant, machines, raw materials) represents value produced in a previous production period. In aggregate, these elements of capital only pass on their previously existing value to the total value (and total price) of the new output. In contrast, labor worked in the current period generates new value. In the example provided above, labor added $40 in value during the production period. Labor was paid $20, which left a surplus for the capitalists of $20.

To avoid confusion, it is important to understand that Marx’s argument applies to value, not physical output or wealth. He is not suggesting that labor is the only source of physical output or wealth. Nature, other animals and machines all create new physical output and wealth, as does labor. The argument, rather, is that only labor translates into new value. Plant, machinery and raw materials used up in the production period only pass on their preexisting value (actually, their prices). Nature, on the other hand, does not transfer any value to output. Instead, private property rights give owners of natural resources a legal entitlement to a payment of rent, which comes out of the surplus value created in the production period.

The rate of profit can be rewritten:

r = (s/v) / (c/v + 1)

In this formula, s/v and c/v have special meanings for Marx. The ratio s/v is the ‘rate of surplus value’ or ‘rate of exploitation’. The ratio c/v is the ‘organic composition of capital’.

The formula shows that as c/v rises (due to technical progress that tends to shed labor per investment dollar over the expansionary phase), the rate of profit r falls, holding other factors constant. Capitalists can partially offset this tendency by wringing more value out of labor per dollar advanced in variable capital. That is, they can try to increase the rate of surplus value (s/v). They can do this by increasing s through technical innovation (an increase in relative surplus value) and enforcing more intensive work and a longer working day (an increase in absolute surplus value) as well as through reductions in v (by restricting employment and wage growth). However, Marx argued that these countervailing tendencies cannot offset the rise in the organic composition of capital indefinitely. First, increases in absolute surplus value are limited by the number of working hours in the production cycle; e.g. a day only contains 24 hours, placing an absolute limit on the working day. Second, increases in relative surplus value are mainly achieved through greater investment in c, and so raise the organic composition of capital (c/v) at the same time as s/v. Third, suppressing wage and employment growth, which restricts the growth in v, not only raises s/v, but also c/v.

So during an expansionary phase, Marx argues that c/v rises and r falls over time. Capitalists offset this tendency as much as possible through attempts to increase s/v, but these efforts cannot fully compensate for the rise in c/v. The solution within the internal logic of capitalism is for a crisis to bring about a collapse in capital values (and prices). This dramatically reduces c, and hence c/v, and revives the rate of profit r. The system is then ready for a new expansionary phase.

Marx’s argument that the countervailing factors cannot offset the tendency for the rate of profit to fall is amenable to empirical testing. In what I consider to be an important new study, Andrew Kliman argues that the rate of profit in the US has behaved in the way Marx theorized over the post-war period. (The study can be obtained here.) On the basis of his empirical analysis, Kliman argues that the failure of the rate of profit to revive sufficiently after successive post-war crises (due to insufficient capital destruction) has been the underlying reason for the unsustainability of successive recoveries from crises, especially since the 1970s, consistent with Marx’s theory.

From Kliman’s perspective, governments have been intent on preventing massive destruction of capital at the onset of each post-war crisis. The reason for this is simple. Although the destruction of capital results in a dramatic rise in profitability, it is devastating both for weak capitals and for the general population. In the face of such a social upheaval, the legitimacy of capitalism itself comes into question, and the risk (to capitalists) of social revolution rises.

Private debt and the private-sector desire to net save

Marx’s theory and Kliman’s study suggest that the increasing tendency toward speculative rather than productive investment is due to the drying up of profitable productive investments. The result has been relatively weak growth in GDP (compared with the post-war period) and a consequent recourse to more and more speculation as financial capital seeks higher returns, creating a level of private debt that is unsustainable in relation to real-value creation (or GDP growth). Attempts to prop up the rate of profit through attacks on real wages and living conditions have at the same time resulted in a marked increase in inequality, providing an impetus toward private household debt.

The economy has reached a point where many private firms and especially households need to spend less than their incomes in order to pay back debt. To facilitate this, the government can underpin a domestic-private sector financial surplus in which disposable income (income minus taxes) exceeds private spending (the sum of private consumption and private investment). That is the lesson of one of the accounting identities that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) stresses:

Government Balance + Private Domestic Balance + Foreign Balance = 0

For nations with current account deficits, such as the US, the foreign balance is positive. So long as this remains the case, the domestic private sectors of these nations can only realize a financial surplus if government runs a deficit, spending more than it taxes.

The worst thing the US government could do right now is to try to reduce its deficit. Not only is it likely to fail in its immediate objective (by negatively impacting demand, output, income and tax revenues) but it will also defeat the private-sector attempt to save and pay off debt. If firms attempt to save to pay off debt, and households attempt to save to pay off debt, there are only two remaining avenues for maintaining the level of aggregate demand: government spending and exports. Government deficits, if they happened to weaken the dollar (which is not certain), will somewhat help exports. But the improvement in exports is likely to be small compared to the impact of ongoing government net spending (because other countries may also try to bolster their exports through competitive devaluations, protectionism, etc). Ongoing government net spending is the policy most likely to enable the private sector to pay off its debt.

Fiscal policy, profitability, and the limits of capitalism

Relating back to Marx’s profit-rate tendency, ongoing government net spending not only provides a means to address the private-debt problem but also helps to prop up the economy-wide average rate of profit whenever output is below full capacity.

At the aggregate level, Marx maintained that total profit equals total surplus value, total price equals total value, and the average rate of profit equals the average rate of surplus value. If it is assumed, for simplicity, that all surplus value is realized in exchange, the impact of fiscal policy on profitability can be considered in price rather than value terms on the basis of Kalecki’s profit equation:

P = CP + I + GD + NX – SW

In this identity, P is aggregate profit, CP is capitalist consumption, I is private gross investment, GD is the government’s deficit, NX is net exports and SW is worker saving. The profit identity shows that aggregate profit is the sum of capitalist expenditures (CP + I), the government deficit (GD) and net exports (NX) minus worker saving (SW). Clearly, the government deficit adds to aggregate profit except to the extent that some of the income generated by government net expenditure leaks to worker saving or imports. For the global economy as a whole, net exports sum to zero. The sum of national government deficits adds to aggregate global profit. The reason for this is that government expenditure, whether it initially goes to workers or capitalists, ultimately ends up in the hands of capitalists, except to the extent that workers save.

For a national economy, the average rate of profit, r, in price terms can be expressed:

r = P / K = (CP + I + GD + NX – SW) / K

where K is the dollar amount of fixed capital investment tied up in production. Since, under conditions of unemployment and excess capacity, the government’s deficit will add to the numerator of the profit expression without adding to the costs of fixed capital investment K in the denominator, the government’s net spending boosts the average rate of profit and improves investment prospects for the private sector. If, in contrast, the government imposes cutbacks and austerity, this squeezes the private sector, impacting negatively both on the domestic private sector’s financial surplus and the average rate of profit.

Note, though, that the impact of government deficits on the rate of profit, operating through the demand channel, reaches its limit at full capacity. At that point, it is no longer possible to raise P relative to K simply through government net expenditure. If, as Marx’s theory suggests, there is a tendency for K to increase over time relative to the level of P realizable at full capacity, a tendency for the rate of profit to fall will ultimately assert itself. This will have profound implications for capitalism and any attempt, via policy, to maintain it as an economic system. Marx’s view that the profit-rate tendency is the most important ‘law’ in political economy can be understood in this light.