copy the linklink copied!Executive summary

copy the linklink copied!The generally well-performing economy has slowed after a long recovery

Living standards and subjective wellbeing are among the highest across the OECD. Broad-based growth on the back of myriad entrepreneurial firms across all regions, supported by growth-friendly social partnerships, has underpinned Austria’s strong well-being and social cohesion.

Economic conditions have improved in recent years, driven by domestic and external factors. Robust employment growth in the private sector has consolidated household confidence and fed into wage increases. Austria benefits from its close integration with globally competitive Germany-centred international value chains, and with rapidly growing Central and Eastern European economies.

More people have moved into work and inward migration has been strong. Labour demand has been robust for three years in a row and has helped to increase women’s and older workers’ labour force participation. At the same time, a large share of newly created job positions has been filled by migrants or cross-border commuting workers. Amid recruitment difficulties and skill mismatches, the estimated rate of structural unemployment has increased. Though the long-term unemployment rate in the domestic labour market has recently fallen, it is still on relatively high levels.

Divergences in labour market outcomes raise social cohesion challenges. Increased skill differences in the population, combined with diverging productivity performance across Austrian firms, generate a higher range of outcomes for employment, job quality and market wages than in the past. Developments are also uneven across regions. This raises challenges for social cohesion. Traditional social expectations of steady job creation for all and high income equality augment claims for higher public spending, including on support and re-training for the unemployed, subsidised social housing, and to help those at risk of relative poverty, notably at old age.

The previous government had important reform objectives. In place from December 2017 to June 2019, it aimed at implementing several regulatory reforms to ease market entry and business conditions, a wide-ranging tax reform to support business investment and job creation, and started a restructuring of the education system. The vocational training system in particular, which has been a pillar of Austria’s past performance, was part of the reform program. Catching-up with the international digitalisation frontier – where Austria has gaps – was emphasised as an overarching strategic objective.

The economy faces headwinds in the short term. The expansion is projected to slow despite supportive domestic conditions due to the weakening of external demand, especially from the key export markets of Germany and Italy (Figure 1). Skill shortages and recruitment difficulties are dragging on business investment. Uncertainties concerning international trade policies are weighing on business confidence, on investment and employment growth. The capital adequacy of banks, which are large for the size of the national economy and are highly exposed in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, is above regulatory norms but can be further strengthened.

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 1. After a strong improvement, growth is slowing
Figure 1. After a strong improvement, growth is slowing

Source: OECD (2019) OECD Economic Outlook: Statistics and Projections (database).

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934024891

copy the linklink copied!
Table 1. The economy is projected to slow to below 2% in 2019 and 2020
Annual percentage change

 

2018

2019

2020

Gross domestic product 

2.3

1.4

1.3

Private consumption

1.1

1.7

1.8

Gross fixed capital formation

3.9

2.9

1.5

Exports

5.6

2.1

0.6

Imports

4.4

2.2

1.2

Unemployment rate (%)

4.8

4.6

4.5

Consumer price index

2.1

1.6

1.7

Fiscal balance (% GDP)

0.1

0.1

0.2

Public debt (Maastricht, % of GDP)

73.8

72.1

70.8

Source: OECD (2019), OECD Economic Outlook: Statistics and Projections (database).

copy the linklink copied!Public finances have moved into surplus, but long-run sustainability and spending efficiency should be improved

Low interest rates and strong growth have helped to balance the government accounts. Further improvements were planned over the 2019-2020 horizon by the government in place after the 2017 elections. As cyclical conditions slow, automatic stabilizers should be allowed to operate and more active measures should be considered if developments get more severe. The tax reform of the previous government was supposed to be fiscally neutral in the long-term but may have slightly reduced the budget surplus in the short-term. Additional direct spending in areas contributing to improve the supply potential of the economy, social cohesion and environmental sustainability may help to provide a more rapid and more easily reversible stimulus.

The long-term impacts of population ageing call for further attention. Population ageing weighs heavily on the public finances and on the supply capacity of the economy. Despite parametric adjustments in the large public pension system - implemented through a long transition period - and the reduction of early retirement avenues, the average effective retirement age remains well below comparable countries. Pension replacement rates are high. Stronger work incentives, better-adapted life-long learning programmes, and a more supportive organisation of work would help older workers to stay longer in the labour force. Under the prevailing skill shortages, this would further facilitate the transmission of older workers’ experiences and competencies to the new cohorts.

To manage the fiscal pressures and risks of ageing, Austria has opted for periodic legislative amendments rather than automatic adjustments to change the retirement age, contributions and benefits as needed. If longevity increases more than expected or there are other changes, this would require further adjustments to the pension system, which may prove politically demanding. Impacts on health and long-term care services should also be well anticipated and actively managed. Growing care needs of old age dependants – the majority of whom are taken care of by their families in Austria – should be addressed without restricting the labour force participation of their relatives. Austrian experiments with innovative approaches in this area include intense recourse to mobile and daytime services. These have the potential to improve the well-being of beneficiaries and to reduce the pressures on public finances in the long term.

More ambitious public sector and federal fiscal reforms are needed. The multilayer structure of the government ensures close relations with the population but raises challenges for cost efficiency, quality and long-term planning of public services. High-quality independent public spending reviews can help improve the design and delivery of services. The spending and taxing powers of Federal, Länder and local governments are currently not harmonised and the average size of municipalities is small. Revenue raising and spending responsibilities should be aligned and economies of scale should be exploited through shared services or consolidation of government layers.

The revenue structure of the general government should be made more growth- and social inclusion-friendly. The tax reform could reduce further labour taxes (including social security contributions) for lower income households, widen the consumption tax base and raise environmental taxes. The authorities should also consider increasing recurrent property taxes and re-introducing inheritance taxes. Widespread VAT reductions should be replaced with direct transfers to low-income households – at lower fiscal costs.

copy the linklink copied!Framework conditions need to be improved to sustain long-term growth and facilitate businesses’ digital transition

Austria is adapting to the global digitalisation frontier at a slower pace than in comparable countries. Upskilling the population across all ages in digital technologies (Figure 2), decreasing the restrictions on competition in product market regulations without reducing the quality of services, further reducing the remaining barriers to digital trade and investment, and fostering the provision of private venture and equity capital would accelerate the adoption of key ICT technologies (Figure 3). Austria’s international leadership in e-government can be re-gained by generalising its use by all social and age groups. A stronger ultra-high speed internet infrastructure would enable more user-friendly services and contribute to faster catching-up.

Product market regulations can be made more supportive for start-ups and for international trade and investment. Service sectors are particularly affected by restrictive regulations and their productivity and innovation capacity appear to be hampered. Simplifying the licencing procedures, in particular for professions, and liberalising market entries in rail transportation, road freight and the distribution of pharmaceuticals would generate significant productivity and innovation gains. Lower prices, more choice and better services would benefit consumers and downstream manufacturing sectors.

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 2. Digital skill shortages are high
Shortage of knowledge of computers and electronics, skills scale between -1 and 1 (strongest), 2015 or latest year
Figure 2. Digital skill shortages are high

Note: Positive values indicate skill shortage while negative values point to skill surplus.

Source: OECD (2018), OECD Skills for Jobs Database.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934024910

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 3. Digitalisation in Austria lags behind
Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), use of Internet, composite index
Figure 3. Digitalisation in Austria lags behind

Source: European Commission (2019), Digital scoreboard (database).

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934024929

The corporate tax system is biased towards debt-financing and Austrian firms have one of the highest average debt-to-equity ratios among OECD countries. Credit markets are well developed and banks, with their close relations with firms, contribute to the success of the business sector, but equity markets have lagged behind. The planned tax reform could reduce the existing biases towards debt finance (Figure 4). Further identifying and addressing the key constraints to the development of the ecosystem for equity investments in firms of all sizes would help. Private capital sources should complete the already large public financing sources for innovative start-ups. Private venture and growth investors can play a more important role in the development of high-potential ventures.

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 4. Debt-to-equity ratio is high
Non-financial corporations, 2018
Figure 4. Debt-to-equity ratio is high

Source: OECD (2019), OECD Financial Dashboard.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934024948

The success of ownership transmissions of family SMEs will be crucial for future economic performance. Enduring strong performance of medium-sized family-owned firms (“hidden champions”) will be key, including through proper operation of ‘family trusts’ during transitions. The measures planned by the previous government to improve the framework conditions for business transfers, including by deepening the capital markets, should be taken up again. The development of both private and listed equity markets would help to facilitate ownership transmissions and contribute to SMEs’ further commercial development, technological modernisation and international outreach.

copy the linklink copied! Integrating all immigrants and improving environmental sustainability are important remaining challenges

Immigration is projected to help offset population ageing and sustain growth in the decades ahead. Effective integration of immigrants improve their contribution to economic development and social well-being (Figure 5). The integration of low-skilled foreigners and their families and children has proven relatively demanding to date. Their German language learning opportunities, the adaptation of their existing skills to labour market needs, and their participation in the labour force should be strengthened. The government also intends to attract more skilled foreigners into “shortage professions” and to retain a higher proportion of foreign graduates of local universities in Austria.

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 5. Migrants are sustaining higher employment
Share of migrants in the total employment, 15-64 year-old employed
Figure 5. Migrants are sustaining higher employment

Source: Eurostat (2019), LFS detailed annual survey results (database).

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934024967

Environmental challenges should be faced more actively. Austria is endowed with exceptional natural assets. Strong focus on employment and GDP growth may have overshadowed environmental priorities in the past. Low carbon prices and taxes in international comparison should be increased to pursue the National Climate Strategy 2030 in more economically efficient ways. Low-density developments around towns and cities have grown more than in comparable countries, worsening road congestions and transportation times and denting air quality. This urban sprawl calls for more effective and better integrated urban planning, transportation and housing development policies across government levels.

copy the linklink copied!

MAIN POLICY FINDINGS

KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

Fiscal and financial policy

Domestic demand has remained robust, but GDP growth has peaked due to weaker external demand growth.

Continue to reduce the public debt ratio. If cyclical conditions worsen, let automatic stabilisers operate and consider more active measures if growth disappoints.

While house prices have risen less than in many countries, valuations have nevertheless reached elevated levels, particularly around Vienna.

Make the existing macro-prudential recommendations on mortgage lending compulsory.

Banks are large compared to the size of the national economy and highly exposed in the region. Their capital adequacy has improved and is in line with regulatory benchmarks, but stay somewhat behind the strongest banking systems.

Ensure that banks of all sizes are robustly capitalised.

The average effective retirement age is well below comparable countries and well below the official retirement age. Pension benefits are generous. The long-term path of pensions remains exposed to significant risks.

Ensure the long-term sustainability of the pension system, e.g. by linking retirement age to life expectancy. Closely monitor demographic and other structural developments and, accordingly, promptly increase the retirement age, raise contributions or reduce benefits as needed.

The current tax system is not employment friendly and plays a very limited role in income and wealth re-distribution.

Create room for substantial labour tax cuts for lower income earners by raising consumption, environmental and inheritance taxes. Consider replacing VAT rate reductions with targeted transfers.

The misalignment of the taxing and spending powers of federal, Länder and local governments and the very small average size of municipalities hamper the cost-efficiency and the quality of public services.

More closely align revenue raising and spending responsibilities of government levels. Seek economies of scale in municipal governance through shared services or consolidation of government.

The efficiency and allocation of public spending could be improved by reforms and better targeting.

Implement high-quality independent government spending reviews to improve the quality and cost-efficiency of services.

Business sector dynamism, jobs and skills

Strict product market regulations create barriers to entry and to international trade and investment. Service sectors are particularly affected and their productivity is hampered. Economic performance is uneven across regions.

Make the licensing system more open to competition without undermining the quality of services and the training and skill standards of workers. Liberalise market entries in rail transportation, road freight and the distribution of pharmaceuticals.

Banks support the business sector effectively, including at local level, but equity markets have fallen behind.

Further identify and address the remaining shortages in the ecosystem for equity investments in firms of all sizes. Further draw on the completion of EU capital market union

The corporate tax system is biased towards debt-financing and Austrian firms have one of the highest average debt-to-equity ratios across OECD countries.

As intended in the tax reform strategy of the previous government, modify corporate taxes to reduce disincentive effects and the debt-bias.

Large proportions of SMEs will face ownership transmissions in the near future. The success of these transmissions will be crucial for the future performance of the economy.

Take up the measures planned by the previous government to facilitate business transfers.

Improve the evidence base on business transfers. Increase awareness on the importance of successful transmissions and help disseminate best practices.

The quantity and quality of life-long learning programmes are behind needs, particularly in digital technologies.

Involve employer organisations more directly in the design and administration of life-long learning programmes.

Migration and cross-border workers play a major role in economic growth. However, recruitment difficulties have increased in all regions.

Continue to attract high-skilled foreign workers and retain more foreign graduates of Austrian universities by facilitating their access to red-white-red cards.

Well-being and social cohesion

Gender gaps in career opportunities and pay remain deeper than in comparable countries.

Make high quality child care and full-day schooling a legal entitlement in the entire country.

The integration of low-skilled migrants and refugees and their families and children fall behind outcomes in other countries facing similar inflows.

Closely monitor the economic and social integration of low-skilled migrants and refugees. Strengthen the German language learning opportunities and the labour force participation potential of their entire families.

The National Climate Strategy 2030 is welcome. However, its carbon emission reduction goals for 2030 risk not being met.

Phase in additional measures if emission trajectories diverge from targets.

Carbon prices are too low and unequal across economic activities.

Raise and harmonise carbon prices across activities, along a predictable path supported by international co-operation.

Urban sprawl is excessive and is damaging Austria’s natural assets, urban living conditions and air quality.

Improve co-operation between federal, Länder and municipal governments on joint urbanisation, housing, transportation and air quality plans.

Disclaimer

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

Photo credits: Cover © DajaGellerova/pixabay.com.

Corrigenda to publications may be found on line at: www.oecd.org/about/publishing/corrigenda.htm.

© OECD 2019

The use of this work, whether digital or print, is governed by the Terms and Conditions to be found at http://www.oecd.org/termsandconditions.