Pearson - Always learning

All your resources for Economics

RSS icon Subscribe | Text size

Articles for the ‘Economics for Business 6e: Ch 31’ Category

Productivity: should we be optimistic?

Productivity has been a bit of a problem for the UK economy for a number of years. Earlier posts from 2015 have discussed the trend in Tackling the UK’s poor productivity and The UK’s poor productivity record. Although the so-called ‘productivity gap’ has been targeted by the government, with George Osborne promising to take steps to encourage more long-term investment in infrastructure and create better incentives for businesses to improve productivity, the latest data suggest that the problem remains.

The ONS has found that the UK continues to lag behind the other members of the G7, but perhaps more concerning is that the gap has grown to its biggest since 1991. The data showed that output per hour worked was 20 percentage points lower in the UK than the average for the other G7 countries. The economic downturn did cause falls in productivity, but the UK has not recovered as much as other advanced nations. One of the reasons, according to the Howard Archer, chief UK economist at IHS Global Insight is that it ‘had been held back since the financial crisis by the creation of lots of low-skilled, low-paid jobs’. These are the jobs where productivity is lowest and this may be causing the productivity gap to expand. Other cited reasons include the lack of investment which Osborne is attempting to address, fewer innovations and problems of finance.

Despite these rather dis-heartening data, there are some signs that things have begun to turn around. In the first quarter of 2015, output per hour worked did increase at the fastest annual growth rate in 3 years and Howard Archer confirmed that this did show ‘clear sign that UK productivity is now seeing much-needed improvement.’ There are other signs that we should be optimistic, delivered by the Bank of England. Sir John Cunliffe, Deputy Governor for financial stability said:

“firms have a greater incentive to find efficiency gains and to switch away from more labour-intensive forms of production. This should boost productivity.”

The reason given for this optimism is the increase in the real cost of labour relative to the cost of investment. So, a bit of a mixed picture here. UK productivity remains a cause for concern and given its importance in improving living standards, the Conservative government will be keen to demonstrate that its policies are closing the productivity gap. The latest data is more promising, but that still leaves a long way to go. The following articles consider this data and news.

UK productivity shortfall at record high Financial Times, Emily Cadman (18/9/15)
UK productivity lags behind rest of 7 BBC News (17/9/15)
UK’s poor productivity figures show challenge for the government The Guardian, Katie Allen (18/9/15)
UK productivity lags G7 peers in 2014-ONS Reuters (18/9/15)
UK productivity second lowest in G7 Fresh Business Thinking, Jonathan Davies (18/9/15)
UK is 33% less productive than Germany Economia (18/9/15)
UK productivity is in the G7 ‘slow lane’ Sky News (18/9/15)

AMECO Database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs
Labour Productivity, Q1 2015 ONS (1/7/15)
International Comparisons of Productivity, 2014 – First Estimates ONS (18/9/15)


  1. How could we measure productivity?
  2. Why should we be optimistic about productivity if the real cost of labour is rising?
  3. If jobs are being created at slower rate and the economy is still expanding, why does this suggest that productivity is rising? What does it suggest about pay?
  4. Why is a rise in productivity needed to improve living standards?
Share in top social networks!

A deus ex machina at last?

It was argued in an earlier blog on the Greek debt crisis that a deus ex machina was needed to find a resolution to the impasse between Greece and its creditors. The most likely candidate for such as role was the IMF.

Three days before the Greek referendum on whether or not to accept the Troika’s proposals, the IMF has stepped onto the stage. To the undoubted surprise of the other two partners in the Troika (the European Commission and the ECB), the IMF argues that Greece’s debts are unsustainable and that much more is needed than a mere bailout (which simply rolls over the debt).

According to the IMF, Greece needs €52bn of extra funds between October 2015 and December 2018, large-scale debt relief, a 20-year grace period before making any debt repayments and then debt repayments spread over the following 20 years. In return, Greece should commit to supply-side reforms to cut out waste, reduce bureaucracy, improve tax collection methods and generally improve the efficiency of the economic system.

It would also have to agree to the previously proposed primary budget surplus (i.e. the budget surplus excluding debt repayments) of 1 per cent of GDP this year, rising to 3.5 per cent in 2018.

So it this what commentators have been waiting for? What will be the reaction of the Greeks and the other two partners in the Troika? We shall see.

IMF says Greece needs extra €50bn in funds and debt relief The Guardian. Phillip Inman, Larry Elliott and Alberto Nardelli (2/7/15)
IMF: 3rd Greek bailout would cost €52bn. Or more? Financial Times, Peter Spiegel (2/7/15)
IMF: Greece needs to reform for sustainable debt, financing needs rising CNBC, Everett Rosenfeld (2/7/15)
The IMF has made an obvious point about Greece’s huge debt. Here’s why it still matters Quartz, Jason Karaian (3/7/15)
Greece: when is it time to forgive debt? The Conversation, Jagjit Chadha (2/7/15)

IMF Analysis
Greece: Preliminary Draft Debt Sustainability Analysis IMF (2/7/15)
Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis for Greece IMF (25/6/15)


  1. To which organisations is Greece indebted? What form to the debts take?
  2. To what extent is Greece’s current debt burden the result of design faults of the euro?
  3. What are the proposals of the IMF? What effect will they have on the Greek economy if accepted?
  4. How would the IMF proposals affect aggregate demand (a) directly; (b) compared with the proposals previously on the table that Greece rejected on 26 June?
  5. What would be the effects of Greek exit from the euro (a) for Greece; (b) for other eurozone countries?
  6. What bargaining chips can Greece deploy in the negotiations?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘moral hazard’. Where in possible outcomes to the negotiations may there be moral hazard?
  8. What has been the impact of Greek austerity measures on the distribution of income and wealth in Greece?
  9. What are the practicalities of pursuing supply-side policies in Greece without further dampening aggregate demand?
Share in top social networks!

Wanted: a Deus ex Machina for Greece

With talks ongoing about resolving the Greek debt crisis, it is clear that there is no agreement that will satisfy both sides – the Greek government and the troika of lenders (the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission). Their current negotiating positions are irreconcilable. What is needed is something more fundamental to provide a long-term solution. What is needed is a ‘deus ex machina‘.

A deus ex machina, which is Latin for ‘god from a machine’, was a device used in Greek tragedy to solve an impossible situation. A god would appear from above, lowered by a crane, or from below through a trap door, and would put everything right. The tragedy would then be given a happy ending.

So what possible happy ending could be brought to the current Greek tragedy and who could be the deus ex machina?

The negotiations between Greece and the troika currently centre on extending credit by €7.2bn when existing debts come up for repayment. There are repayments currently due to the IMF, or by the end of June, of €1.5bn and more in July, September and December (another €3.2bn). There are also €6.7bn of Greek bonds held by the ECB, as part of the 2010 bailout programme, that are due for repayment in July and August. Without the €7.2 billion bailout, Greece will be unable to meet these debt repayments, which also include Treasury bills.

But the troika will only release the funds in return for harsh austerity measures, which involve further cuts to pensions and public expenditure. Greece would be required to run a substantial budget surplus for many years.

Greece could refuse, but then it would end up defaulting on debt and be forced out of the euro. The result would probably be a substantial depreciation of a newly restored drachma, rising inflation and many Greeks suffering even greater hardship – at least for a period of time.

So what is the possible deus ex machina? If you’re looking for a ‘god’ then it is best, perhaps, to look beyond the current actors. Perhaps the Americans could play the role in finding a solution to the impasse. Perhaps a small group of independent experts or politicians, or both, could find one. In either case, the politics of the situation would have to be addressed as well as the economics and finance.

And what would be the ‘fix’ to satisfy both sides? Ultimately, this has to allow Greek debt to be sustainable without further depressing demand and undermining the fabric of Greek society. This would almost certainly have to involve a large measure of debt forgiveness (i.e. debts being written off). It also has to avoid creating a moral hazard, whereby if the Greeks are seen as being ‘let off lightly’, this might encourage other indebted eurozone countries to be less willing to reduce their debts and make demands for forgiveness too.

Ultimately, the issue is a political one, not an economic one. This will require clever negotiation and, if there is a deus ex machina, clever mediation too.

Greek PM Tsipras warns lenders bailout plans ‘not realistic’ BBC News, Jim Reynolds (5/6/25)
Greece defers IMF payment until end of June BBC News, Chris Morris (5/6/15)
Greek debt talks: Empty shops and divided societies BBC News, Chris Morris (10/6/15)
Potential Grexit effects Deutsche Welle (13/6/15)

It’s time to end the pretence: Greece will never fully repay its bailout loan The Guardian, Andrew Farlow (9/6/15)
Greek exit would trigger eurozone collapse, says Alexis Tsipras The Guardian, Phillip Inman, Helena Smith and Graeme Wearden (9/6/15)
The eurozone was a dream of unity. Now Europe has turned upon itself The Guardian, Business leader (14/6/15)
Greece bailout talks: an intractable crisis with three possible outcomes The Guardian, Larry Elliott (2/6/15)
Greece needs an economic defibrillator and a debt write-off Financial Times letters, Ray Kinsella (25/3/15)
Greece’s new debt restructuring plan Times of Change, Peter Spiegel (5/6/15)
Eurozone still in denial about Greece BBC News, Robert Peston (3/6/15)
Greece bailout talks – the main actors in a modern-day epic The Guardian, Phillip Inman, Ian Traynor and Helena Smith (9/6/15)
Greece isn’t any old troubled debtor BBC News, Robert Peston (15/6/15)
Greece in default if debt deadline missed, says Lagarde BBC News (18/6/15)
Burden of debt to IMF and European neighbours proves too much for Greece The Guardian, Heather Stewart (17/6/15)

Ending the Greek Crisis: Debt Management and Investment led Growth Greek government


  1. To which organisations is Greece indebted? What form to the debts take?
  2. To what extent is Greece’s current debt burden the result of design faults of the euro?
  3. Would it be possible to restructure debts in ways that make it easier for Greece to service them?
  4. Should Greece be treated by the IMF the same way it treated the highly indebted poor countries (HIPCs) and granted substantial debt relief?
  5. What would be the effects of Greek exit from the euro (a) for Greece; (b) for other eurozone countries?
  6. What bargaining chips can Greece deploy in the negotiations?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘moral hazard’. Where in possible outcomes to the negotiations may there be moral hazard?
  8. What has been the impact of Greek austerity measures on the distribution of income and wealth in Greece?
  9. What are the practicalities of pursuing supply-side policies in Greece without further dampening aggregate demand?
Share in top social networks!

Tackling the UK’s poor productivity

As we saw in the blog post The UK’s poor productivity record, the UK’s productivity, as measured by output per hour worked, has grown much slower than in other major developed countries since the financial crisis. In fact, output per hour is lower now than in 2008. In France and Germany it is around 3 per higher than in 2008; in Japan it is nearly 6% higher; in the USA it is over 8% higher; and in Ireland it is 12% higher.

The chart below shows international comparisons of labour productivity from 2000 to 2014. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

And it is not just labour productivity that has fallen in the UK. Total factor productivity of labour and capital combined has also fallen. This reflects the fall in business investment after the financial crisis and, more recently, meeting the demand for extra output by employing more labour rather than by investing in extra capital.

In his first major speech since the election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, told the CBI that the government was intent on tackling the problem of low and stagnant productivity. This would require investment in infrastructure, such as high-speed rail, better roads, superfast broadband and a new runway in the south east. It would require investment in education, training and research; it would involve cutting red tape for business; it would require making it easier for both parents in a family to work by cutting the cost of childcare. The details of the government’s policies would be made clear in the soon-to-be published Productivity Plan.

But how much difference can the government make? Are there intractable problems that will prove virtually impossible to overcome? How much, indeed, can a government do, however much it would like to? The articles explore the issues.

Will George Osborne’s productivity plan help make Britain a world-beater? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/5/15)
UK productivity has stayed stubbornly low for years. Dare we hope for better? The Guardian (24/5/15)
Joseph Stiglitz: ‘GDP per capita in the UK is lower than it was before the crisis. That is not a success’ The Observer, Anthony Andrew (24/5/15)
Osborne says low productivity key economic challenge BBC News (20/5/15)
Solving the productivity puzzle BBC News, Duncan Weldon (20/4/15)
Osborne faces up to productivity challenge BBC News, Robert Peston (20/5/15)
Osborne makes priority of boosting UK productivity Financial Times, George Parker (20/5/15)
The Bank of England is living in cloud-cuckoo land on wages Independent, David Blanchflower (18/5/14)
Cameron’s Plan Hasn’t Cracked Productivity Slump Flagged by BOE Bloomberg, Jill Ward (14/5/15)
To solve Britain’s productivity puzzle, try asking the workers The Conversation, Stephen Wood (29/6/15)

Inflation Report: Chapter 3, Output and Supply Bank of England (May 2015)


  1. Define (a) labour productivity; (b) capital productivity; (c) total factor productivity.
  2. Why has the UK experienced lower productivity than other developed countries?
  3. Why may the UK’s lower unemployment than other countries in the post-recession period be the direct consequence of lower productivity growth?
  4. For what reasons might it be difficult for the government to achieve a significant increase in UK productivity?
  5. How might demand-side policy negatively impact on the supply-side policies that the government might adopt to increase productivity?
  6. How might the period up to and beyond the referendum in the UK on continuing EU membership impact on productivity?
  7. How might poor productivity be tackled?
Share in top social networks!

Uncertainty and the EU Referendum

Interest rates are the main tool of monetary policy and crucially affect investment. There has been much discussion since the end of the financial crisis concerning when UK interest rates would eventually rise. Uncertainty over just when, and by how much, interest rates will rise affects business confidence and hence investment. Businesses therefore listen carefully to what the Bank of England says about future movements in Bank Rate. But Mark Carney has now spoken about another cause of uncertainty and its impct on investment. This is the uncertainty over the outcome of the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU.

By 2017, the Prime Minister has promised a referendum on staying in the EU, but Mark Carney has urged for this to be held ‘as soon as possible’. Whether or not the UK remains in the EU will have a big effect on businesses and with the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s future, this may soon turn to a lack of investment. As yet, businesses have not responded to this uncertainty, but the longer the delay for the referendum, the more inclined firms will be to postpone investment. As Mark Carney said:

“We talk to a lot of bosses and there has been an awareness of some of this political uncertainty – whether because of the election or because of the referendum … What they’ve been telling us, and we see it in the statistics, is they have not yet acted on that uncertainty – or to put it another way, they are continuing to invest, they are continuing to hire.”

Leaving the EU will have big effects on consumers and businesses, given that the EU is the UK’s largest market, trading partner and investor. With a referendum sooner rather than later, uncertainty will be more limited and any reaction by businesses will take place over a shorter time period. There are many other factors that affect business investment, some of which are related to the UK’s relationship with the EU and the following articles consider these issues.

EU referendum should be held ‘as soon as necessary’, says Mark Carney BBC News (14/5/15)
Business want an early EU referendum, Mark Carney indicates The Telegraph, Ben Riley-Smith (14/5/15)
EU poll should take place ‘as soon as necessary’, says Bank of England Chief The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (14/5/15)
Threat of business leaving the EU is fuelling business ‘uncertainty’, says Bank of England governor Mark Carney Mail Online, Matt Chorley (14/5/15)
Bank of England’s Mark Carney urges speedy EU referendum Financial Times, George Parker (14/5/15)


  1. Why is the EU important to the UK’s economic performance?
  2. If the UK were to leave the EU, what impact would this have on UK consumers?
  3. What would be the impact on UK firms if the UK were to leave the EU?
  4. Consider an AD/AS diagram and use this to explain the potential impact on the macroeconomic variables if the UK were to leave the EU.
  5. Why is uncertainty over the UK’s referendum likely to have an adverse effect on investment?
Share in top social networks!

The UK’s poor productivity record

Real GDP depends on two things: output per hour worked and the number of hours worked. On the surface, the UK economy is currently doing relatively well, with growth in 2014 of 2.8%. After several years of poor economic growth following the financial crisis of 2007/8, growth of 2.8% represents a return to the long-run average for the 20 years prior to the crisis.

But growth since 2010 has been entirely due to an increase in hours worked. On the one hand, this is good, as it has meant an increase in employment. In this respect, the UK is doing better than other major economies. But productivity has not grown and on this front, the UK is doing worse than other countries.

The first chart shows UK output per hour worked (click here for a PowerPoint). It is based on figures released by the ONS on 1 April 2015. Average annual growth in output per hour worked was 2.3% from 2000 to 2008. Since then, productivity growth has stalled and output per hour is now lower than at the peak in 2008.

The green line projects from 2008 what output per hour would have been if its growth had remained at 2.3%. It shows that by the end of 2014 output per hour would have been nearly 18% higher if productivity growth had been maintained.

The second chart compares UK productivity growth with other countries (click here for a PowerPoint). Up to 2008, UK productivity was rising slightly faster than in the other five countries illustrated. Since then, it has performed worse than the other five countries, especially since 2011.

Productivity growth increases potential GDP. It also increases actual GDP if the productivity increase is not offset by a fall in hours worked. A rise in hours worked without a rise in productivity, however, even though it results in an increase in actual output, does not increase potential output. If real GDP growth is to be sustained over the long term, there must be an increase in productivity and not just in hours worked.

The articles below examines this poor productivity performance and looks at reasons why it has been so bad.

UK’s sluggish productivity worsened in late 2014 – ONS Reuters (1/4/15)
UK productivity growth is weakest since second world war, says ONS The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/4/15)
UK productivity weakness worsening, says ONS Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/4/15)
Is the UK’s sluggish productivity a problem? Financial Times comment (1/4/15)
UK manufacturing hits eight-month high but productivity slump raises fears over sustainability of economic recovery This is Money, Camilla Canocchi (1/4/15)
Weak UK productivity unprecedented, ONS says BBC News (1/4/15)
Weep for falling productivity Robert Peston (1/4/15)
UK’s Falling Productivity Prevented A Massive Rise In Unemployment Forbes, Tim Worstall (2/4/15)

Labour Productivity, Q4 2014 ONS (1/4/15)
AMECO database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs


  1. How can productivity be measured? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using specific measures?
  2. Draw a diagram to show the effects on equilibrium national income of (a) a productivity increase, but offset by a fall in the number of hours worked; (b) a productivity increase with hours worked remaining the same; (c) a rise in hours worked with no increase in productivity. Assume that actual output depends on aggregate demand.
  3. Is poor productivity growth good for employment? Explain.
  4. Why is productivity in the UK lower now than in 2008?
  5. What policies can be pursued to increase productivity in the UK?
Share in top social networks!

Looking once again through Minsky eyes at UK credit numbers

In recent times the notion that the financial sytem can be destabilising seems blindingly obvious. And, yet, for some time macroeconomic models of the economy tended to regard the financial system as benevolent. It served our interests. We were the masters; it was our servant. Now of course we accept that credit cycles can be destabilising. Policymakers, especially central banks, follow keenly the latest private-sector credit data. Here we look back at previous patterns in private-sector debt and crucially at what patterns are currently emerging.

First a bit of theory. The idea of credit cycles is not new. But the financial crisis of the late 2000s has helped to reignite analysis and interest. Economists are trying to gain a better understanding of the relationship between flows of credit and the state of the economy and, in particular, why might flows increase as the level of real GDP rises – why might they be endogenous variables in models of the determination of GDP. One possibility is the financial accelerator. This is the idea that as real GDP rises banks perceive lending to be less risky. After all, real incomes will tend to rise and collateral values (against which borrowing can be secured) are likely to be rising too.

Another possibility is growing exuberance as the economy grows. This has gained in popularity as an idea, with economists revisiting the work of Hyman Minsky (1919–96), an American economist. Here success breeds failure as the balance sheets of people and businesses deteriorate as they become increasingly burdened with debt. The balance sheets are said to be congested leading to a point when a deleveraging starts. A balance sheet recession then follows.

Now for the data. Consider first the stocks of debt acquired by households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions). The first chart shows debt stocks as a percentage of GDP. It illustrates nicely the phenomenon of financialisation. In essence, this is the increasing importance of MFIs to the economy. At the end of 2014, these two sectors had debt stocks outstanding equivalent to 90 per cent of GDP. In fact, this is down from a peak of 129 per cent in September 2009. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth in debt, especially in the 1990s and for much of the 2000s, was through financial innovation. In particular, the bundling of assets, such as mortgages, to form financial instruments which could then be purchased by investors helped to provide financial institutions with further funds for lending. This is the process of securitisation. Some argue that this was part of a super-cycle which works alongside the normal credit cycle, albeit over a much lengthier period. It can be argued that these cycles coincided during the 1990s and for much of the 2000s until financial distress hit. The distress was hastened by central banks raising interest rates to dampen the rising rate of inflation, partly attributable to rising global commodity prices, including oil.

Some refer to 2008 as a Minsky moment. Overstretched balance sheets needed repairing. But, the collective act of repair actually caused financial well-being to worsen as asset prices and aggregate demand fell.

The global response to the events of the financial crisis has been for policy-makers to pay more attention to the aggregate level of credit provision. The Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee (FPC) has responsibility for monitoring and helping to ensure the soundness of the UK financial system.

Undoubtedly, the FPC will have constructed a chart similar to our second chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). This chart suggests some caution: the need for casting a ‘Minsky eye’ on lending patterns. Over 2014, the UK household sector undertook net lending (i.e. after deducting repayments) of £30 billion. While nothing like the £100 billion or so in 2007, this does mark something of a step up. Indeed it is almost exactly double the flow in 2013. In the months ahead we will continue to monitor the credit data. You can bet that the FPC will do too!

Comment: Household debt threatens return to spending Herald Scotland, Bill Jamieson (2/3/15)
Household debt rising at fastest rate for 10yrs (10/2/15)
Housing starting to rally after home loan approvals rise in January London Evening Standard, Ben Chu (2/3/15)

Bankstats (Monetary and Financial Statistics) – Latest Tables Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England


  1. What is meant by the term the business cycle?
  2. What does it mean for the determinants of the business cycle to be endogenous? What about if they are exogenous?
  3. Outline the ways in which the financial system can impact on the spending behaviour of households. Repeat the exercise for businesses.
  4. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households and businesses?
  5. What does it mean if bank lending is pro-cyclical?
  6. Why might lending be pro-cyclical?
  7. How might the differential between borrowing and saving interest rates vary over the business cycle?
  8. Explain what you understand by net lending to households or firms. How does net lending affect their stock of debt?
Share in top social networks!

UK productivity: a constraint on long-term growth

‘Employment has been strong, but productivity and real wages have been flat.’ This is one of the key observations in a new OECD report on the state of the UK economy. If real incomes for the majority of people are to be raised, then labour productivity must rise.

For many years, the UK has had a lower productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) than most other developed countries, with the exception of Japan. But from 1980 to the mid 2000s, the gap was gradually narrowing. Since then, however, the gap has been widening again. This is illustrated in Chart 1, which shows countries’ productivity relative to the UK’s (with the UK set at 100). (Click here for a PowerPoint.)

Compared with the UK, GDP per hour worked in 2013 (the latest data available) was 28% higher in France, 29% higher in Germany and 30% higher in the USA. What is more, GDP per hour worked and GDP per capita in the UK fell by 3.8% and 6.1% respectively after the financial crisis of 2007/8 (see the green and grey lines in Chart 2). And while both indicators began rising after 2009, they were still both below their 2007 levels in 2013. Average real wages also fell after 2007 but, unlike the other two indicators, kept on falling and by 2013 were 4% below their 2007 levels, as the red line in Chart 2 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.)

Although productivity and even real wages are rising again, the rate of increase is slow. If productivity is to rise, there must be investment. This could be in physical capital, human capital or, preferably, both. But for many years the UK has had a lower rate of investment than other countries, as Chart 3 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.) This chart measures investment in fixed capital as a percentage of GDP.

So how can investment be encouraged? Faster growth will encourage greater investment through the accelerator effect, but such an effect could well be short-lived as firms seek to re-equip but may be cautious about committing to increasing capacity. What is crucial here is maintaining high degrees of business confidence over an extended period of time.

More fundamentally, there are structural problems that need tackling. One is the poor state of infrastructure. This is a problem not just in the UK, but in many developed countries, which cut back on public and private investment in transport, communications and energy infrastructure in an attempt to reduce government deficits after the financial crisis. Another is the low level of skills of many workers. Greater investment in training and apprenticeships would help here.

Then there is the question of access to finance. Although interest rates are very low, banks are cautious about granting long-term loans to business. Since the financial crisis banks have become much more risk averse and long-term loans, by their nature, are relatively risky. Government initiatives to provide finance to private companies may help here. For example the government has just announced a Help to Grow scheme which will provide support for 500 small firms each year through the new British Business Bank, which will provide investment loans and also grants on a match funding basis for new investment.

OECD: UK must fix productivity Economia, Oliver Griffin (25/2/15)
The UK’s productivity puzzle BBC News, Lina Yueh (24/2/15)
OECD warns UK must fix productivity problem to raise living standards The Guardian, Katie Allen (24/2/15)
Britain must boost productivity to complete post-crisis recovery, says OECD International Business Times, Ian Silvera (24/2/15)
OECD urges UK to loosen immigration controls on skilled workers Financial Times, Emily Cadman and Helen Warrell (24/2/15)

OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Overview OECD (February 2015)
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Full report OECD (February 2015)


  1. In what ways can productivity be measured? What are the relative merits of using the different measures?
  2. Why has the UK’s productivity lagged behind other industrialised countries?
  3. What is the relationship between income inequality and labour productivity?
  4. Why has UK investment been lower than in other industrialised countries?
  5. What are zombie firms? How does the problem of zombie firms in the UK compare with that in other countries? Explain the differences.
  6. What policies can be pursued to increased labour productivity?
  7. What difficulties are there in introducing effective policies to tackle low productivity?
  8. Should immigration controls be lifted to tackle the problem of a shortage of skilled workers?
Share in top social networks!

More and more zeros

In a post last August we looked at the rising number of workers employed on ‘zero-hours’ contracts. These are contracts where there are no guaranteed minimum hours. Such contracts give employers the flexibility to employ workers as much or as little as suits the business. Sometimes it benefits workers, who might be given the flexibility to request the hours that suit them, but usually workers simply have to take the hours on offer.

Latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that zero-hours contracts are on the increase. In 2014 quarter 4, 697,000 workers were recorded as being on zero-hours contracts. This represents 2.3% of people in employment. Ten years ago (2004, Q4) the figures were 108,000 or 0.4%: see chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Around one third of the 697,000 people on zero-hours contracts wanted more work if they could get it and most wanted it in their current job rather than having to move jobs. These people wanting more work can be classed as underemployed. They also include those not on a zero-hours contract who would like to work more if they could.

According to the ONS:

‘People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be women, in full-time education or in young or older age groups when compared with other people in employment. On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week.’ (See section 4 of the report for more details.)

As we saw in the earlier post, many public- and private-sector employers use such contracts, including many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.

As we also saw, zero-hours contracts are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.

The extent of zero-hours contracts varies dramatically from one sector of the economy to another. Only 0.6% of workers in the Information, Finance and Professional sectors were on zero-hours contracts in 2014 Q4, whereas 10% in the Accommodation and Food sectors were.

The flexibility that such contracts give employers may make them more willing to keep on workers when demand is low – they can reduce workers’ hours rather than laying them off. It also may make them more willing to take on workers (or increase their hours) when demand is expanding, not having to worry about being over staffed later on.

However, many workers on such contracts find it hard to budget when their hours are not guaranteed and can vary significantly from week to week.

lmost 700,000 people in UK have zero-hours contract as main job The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/2/15)
UK firms use 1.8m zero-hours contracts, says ONS BBC News (25/1/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump in UK Financial Times, Emily Cadman (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts ‘disturbingly’ hit 1.8 million in 2014 International Business Times, Ian Silvera (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts a reality for almost 700,000 UK workers, ONS figures show Independent, Antonia Molloy (25/1/15)

Contracts with No Guaranteed Hours, Zero Hour Contracts, 2014 ONS Release (25/1/15)
Supplementary LFS data on zero hours contracts – October to December 2014 ONS dataset (25/2/15)
Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours ONS Report (25/1/15)


  1. Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
  2. Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
  3. In a ‘flexible’ labour market, what forms can that flexibility take?
  4. Why does the Accommodation and Food sector have a relatively high proportion of people employed on zero-hours contracts?
  5. What are the benefits and costs to employers of using zero-hours contracts?
  6. If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
  7. What are the benefits and costs to employees of working on zero-hours contracts?
  8. Why has the use of zero-hours contracts risen so rapidly?
  9. Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
  10. Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
  11. Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.
Share in top social networks!

Inequality and economic growth

What is the relationship between the degree of inequality in a country and the rate of economic growth? The traditional answer is that there is a trade off between the two. Increasing the rewards to those who are more productive or who invest encourages a growth in productivity and capital investment, which, in turn, leads to faster economic growth. Redistribution from the rich to the poor, by contrast, is argued to reduce incentives by reducing the rewards from harder work, education, training and investment. Risk taking, it is claimed, is discouraged.

Recent evidence from the OECD and the IMF, however, suggests that when income inequality rises, economic growth falls. Inequality has grown massively in many countries, with average incomes at the top of the distribution seeing particular gains, while many at the bottom have experienced actual declines in real incomes or, at best, little or no growth. This growth in inequality can be seen in a rise in countries’ Gini coefficients. The OECD average Gini coefficient rose from 0.29 in the mid-1980s to 0.32 in 2011/12. This, claims the OECD, has led to a loss in economic growth of around 0.35 percentage points per year.

But why should a rise in inequality lead to lower economic growth? According to the OECD, the main reason is that inequality reduces the development of skills of the lower income groups and reduces social mobility.

By hindering human capital accumulation, income inequality undermines education opportunities for disadvantaged individuals, lowering social mobility and hampering skills development.

The lower educational attainment applies both to the length and quality of education: people from poorer backgrounds on average leave school or college earlier and with lower qualifications.

But if greater inequality generally results in lower economic growth, will a redistribution from rich to poor necessarily result in faster economic growth? According to the OECD:

Anti-poverty programmes will not be enough. Not only cash transfers but also increasing access to public services, such as high-quality education, training and healthcare, constitute long-term social investment to create greater equality of opportunities in the long run.

Thus redistribution policies need to be well designed and implemented and focus on raising incomes of the poor through increased opportunities to increase their productivity. Simple transfers from rich to poor via the tax and benefits system may, in fact, undermine economic growth. According to the IMF:

That equality seems to drive higher and more sustainable growth does not in itself support efforts to redistribute. In particular, inequality may impede growth at least in part because it calls forth efforts to redistribute that themselves undercut growth. In such a situation, even if inequality is bad for growth, taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy.

Inequality ‘significantly’ curbs economic growth – OECD BBC News (9/12/14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)
Income inequality damages growth, OECD warns Financial Times, Chris Giles (8/10/14)
OECD finds increasing inequality lowers growth Deutsche Welle, Jasper Sky (10/12/14)
Revealed: how the wealth gap holds back economic growth The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/12/14)
Inequality Seriously Damages Growth, IMF Seminar Hears IMF Survey Magazine (12/4/14)
Warning! Inequality May Be Hazardous to Your Growth iMFdirect, Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry (8/4/11)
Economic growth more likely when wealth distributed to poor instead of rich The Guardian, Stephen Koukoulas (4/6/15)
So much for trickle down: only bold reforms will tackle inequality The Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/6/15)

Record inequality between rich and poor OECD on YouTube (5/12/11)
The Price of Inequality The News School on YouTube, Joseph Stiglitz (5/10/12)

Reports and papers
FOCUS on Inequality and Growth OECD, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs (December 2014)
Trends in Income Inequality and its Impact on Economic Growth OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, Federico Cingano (9/12/14)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OCED (2011)
Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth IMF Staff Discussion Note, Jonathan D. Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides (February 2014)
Measure to Measure Finance and Development, IMF, Jonathan D. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg (Vol. 51, No. 3, September 2014)

OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS


  1. Explain what are meant by a Lorenz curve and a Gini coefficient? What is the relationship between the two?
  2. The Gini coefficient is one way of measuring inequality. What other methods are there? How suitable are they?
  3. Assume that the government raises taxes to finance higher benefits to the poor. Identify the income and substitution effects of the tax increases and whether the effects are to encourage or discourage work (or investment).
  4. Distinguish between (a) progressive, (b) regressive and (c) proportional taxes?
  5. How will the balance of income and substitution effects vary in each of the following cases: (a) a cut in the tax-free allowance; (b) a rise in the basic rate of income tax; (c) a rise in the top rate of income tax? How does the relative size of the two effects depend, in each case, on a person’s current income?
  6. Identify policy measures that would increase both equality and economic growth.
  7. Would a shift from direct to indirect taxes tend to increase or decrease inequality? Explain.
  8. By examining Tables 3, 26 and 27 in The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13, (a) explain the difference between original income, gross income, disposable income and post-tax income; (b) explain the differences between the Gini coefficients for each of these four categories of income in the UK.
Share in top social networks!