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A Budget warning on productivity and growth

In delivering his Budget on 22 November, Philip Hammond reported that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility had revised down its forecasts of growth in productivity and real GDP, and hence of earnings growth.

Today, median earnings are £23,000 per annum. This is £1500 less than the £24,500 that the median worker earned in 2008 in today’s prices. The OBR forecasts a growth in real household disposable income of just 0.35% per annum for the next four years.

With lower growth in earnings would come a lower growth in tax revenues. With his desire to cut the budget deficit and start eventually reducing government debt, this would give the government less scope for spending on infrastructure, training and other public-sector investment; less scope to support public services, such as health and education; less scope for increasing benefits and public-sector wages.

The normal measure of productivity, and the one used by the OBR, is the value of output produced per hour worked. This has hardly increased at all since the financial crisis of 2008. It now takes an average worker in the UK approximately five days to produce the same amount as it takes an average worker in Germany four days. Although other countries’ productivity growth has also slowed since the financial crisis, it has slowed more in the UK and from a lower base – and is now forecast to rebound less quickly.

For the past few years the OBR has been forecasting that productivity growth would return to the trend rate of just over 2% that the UK achieved prior to 2008. For example, the forecasts it made in June 2010 are shown by the grey line in the chart, which were based on the pre-crash trend rate of growth in productivity (click on chart to enlarge). And the forecasts it made in November 2016 are shown by the pale green line. Yet each year productivity has hardly changed at all. Today output per hour is less than 1% above its level in 2008.

Now the OBR believes that poorer productivity growth will persist. It is still forecasting an increase (the blue line in the chart) – but by 0.7 of a percentage point less than it was forecasting a year ago (the pale green line): click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.

We have assumed that productivity growth will pick up a little, but remain significantly lower than its pre-crisis trend rate throughout the next five years. On average, we have revised trend productivity growth down by 0.7 percentage points a year. It now rises from 0.9 per cent this year to 1.2 per cent in 2022. This reduces potential output in 2021-22 by 3.0 per cent. The ONS estimates that output per hour is currently 21 per cent below an extrapolation of its pre-crisis trend. By the beginning of 2023 we expect this to have risen to 27 per cent.

Why has there been such weak productivity growth?
Weak productivity growth has been caused by a mixture of factors.

Perhaps the most important is that investment as a percentage of GDP has been lower than before the financial crisis and lower than in other countries. Partly this has been caused by a lack of funding for investment as banks have sought to rebuild their capital and have cut down on riskier loans. Partly it has been caused by a lack of demand for investment, given sluggish rates of economic growth and the belief that austerity will continue.

And it is not just private investment. Public-sector investment in transport infrastructure, housing and education and training has been lower than in other countries. Indeed, the poor training record and low skill levels in the UK are main contributors to low productivity.

The fall in the pound since the Brexit vote has raised business costs and further dampened demand as incomes have been squeezed.

Another reason for low productivity growth has been that employers have responded to weak demand, not by laying off workers and thereby raising unemployment, but by retaining low-productivity workers on low wages. Another has been the survival of ‘zombie’ firms, which, by paying low wages and facing ultra-low interest rates, are able to survive competition from firms that do invest.

Why is weak productivity growth forecast to continue?
Looking forward, the nature of the Brexit deal will impact on confidence, investment, wages and growth. If the deal is bad for the UK, the OBR’s forecasts are likely to be too optimistic. As it is, uncertainty over the nature of the post-Brexit world is weighing heavily on investment as some businesses choose to wait before committing to new investment.

On the other hand, exports may rise faster as firms respond to the depreciation of the pound and this may stimulate investment, thereby boosting productivity.

Another factor is the effect of continuing tight Budgets. There was some easing of austerity in this Budget, as the Chancellor accepted a slower reduction in the deficit, but government spending will remain tight and this is likely to weigh on growth and investment and hence productivity.

But this may all be too gloomy. It is very difficult to forecast productivity growth, especially as it is hard to measure output in much of the service sector. It may be that the productivity growth forecasts will be revised up before too long. For example, the benefits from new technologies, such as AI, may flow through more quickly than anticipated. But they may flow through more slowly and the productivity forecasts may have to be revised down even further!

Articles
The OBR’s productivity “forecast” Financial Times, Kadhim Shubber
U.K. Faces Longest Fall in Living Standards on Record Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy and Thomas Penny (23/11/17)
Britain’s Productivity Pain Costs Hammond $120 Billion Bloomberg, Fergal O’Brien (22/11/17)
OBR slashes Britain’s growth forecast on sluggish productivity and miserly pay The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (22/11/17)
Budget 2017: Stagnant earnings forecast ‘astonishing’ BBC News (23/11/17)
Economists warn Budget measures to lift productivity fall short Financial Times, Gavin Jackson and Gill Plimmer (22/11/17)
Why the economic forecasts for Britain are so apocalyptic – and how much Brexit is to blame Independent, Ben Chu (24/11/17)
Growth holds steady as economists doubt OBR’s gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (23/11/17)
Britain’s debt will not fall to 2008 levels until 2060s, IFS says in startling warning Independent, Lizzy Buchan (23/11/17)
Philip Hammond’s budget spots Britain’s problems but fails to fix them The Economist (22/11/17)
Debunking the UK’s productivity problem The Conversation, Paul Lewis (24/11/17)
Budget 2017: experts respond The Conversation (22/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 Forecasts Mean ‘Longest Ever Fall In Living Standards’, Says Resolution Foundation Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (23/11/17)
It May Just Sound Like A Statistic, But Productivity Growth Matters For All Of Us Huffington Post, Thomas Pope (24/11/17) (see also)
UK prospects for growth far weaker than first predicted, says OBR The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (22/11/17)
UK faces two decades of no earnings growth and more austerity, says IFS The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/11/17)
Age of austerity isn’t over yet, says IFS budget analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/11/17)

Summary of Budget measures
Budget 2017: FT experts look at what it means for you Financial Times (24/11/17)

Official Documents
Autumn Budget 2017 HM Treasury (22/11/17)
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2017 Office for Budget Responsibility (22/11/17)

IFS analysis
Autumn Budget 2017 Institute for Fiscal Studies (23/11/17)

Questions

  1. What measures of productivity are there other than output per hour? Why is output per hour normally the preferred measure of productivity?
  2. What factors determine output per hour?
  3. Why have forecasts of productivity growth rates been revised downwards?
  4. What are the implications of lower productivity growth for government finances?
  5. What could cause an increase in output per hour? Would there be any negative effects from these causes?
  6. What policies could the government pursue to increase productivity? How feasible are these policies? Explain.
  7. Would it matter if the government increased borrowing substantially to fund a large programme of public investment?
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Scotland: Fiscal Autonomy?

Scottish voters will be crucial in the upcoming election, with the SNP poised to take many of Labour’s seats north of the border. The future of Scotland will depend on which party comes to power and what decisions are made with regards to its finances.

Nicola Sturgeon wants government spending and taxation powers transferred to the Scottish Parliament, but would this mean spending cuts and tax rises for the Scottish people? Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader has been vocal in pointing out what this might mean, with cuts to pensions or raising taxes. However, given that it is Labour that is facing the biggest threat from the SNP, it is perhaps hardly surprising.

However, as the first video below shows, there would be an estimated £7.6bn deficit in Scotland, according to the IFS if spending and taxing was to be transferred here. This is because the tax revenues raised in Scotland are lower per person and spending per person is higher than across the whole of the UK. Oil prices are extremely low at present and hence this is reducing tax revenues. When the oil price does rise, revenues will increase and so if the split in finances was to occur this would reduce that deficit somewhat, but it would still leave a rather large hole in Scotland’s finances. The following videos and articles consider the SNP’s plans.

Videos
SNP fiscal autonomy plan: What would it do to Scotland’s finances? BBC News, Robert Peston (10/4/15)
Labour attacks SNP’s ‘devastating’ economic plans BBC News (10/4/15)

Articles
Ed Miliband attacks SNP plan for Scottish fiscal autonomy The Guardian, Severin Carrell (10/4/15)
Ed Miliband wars pensions will be cut under SNP plans The Telegraph, Auslan Cramb (10/4/15)
SNP fails to account for billions in welfare and pensions pledge, says IFS The Guardian, Severin Carrell (10/4/15)

Questions

  1. What is a budget deficit?
  2. What does fiscal autonomy for Scotland actually mean?
  3. The IFS suggests that there will be a large deficit in Scottish finances if they gain autonomy. How could this gap be reduced?
  4. Why has Labour claimed that tax rises would occur under the SNP’s plans? What could this mean for Scottish growth?
  5. Why do lower oil prices reduce tax revenues for Scotland?
  6. If Scotland had control over its finances, it could influence where government spending goes. Which industries would you invest in if you were in charge?
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A 50p top tax rate: more or less money for the government?

The UK Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has announced that, if Labour is returned to power in the next election, it will bring back the 50% top rate of income tax (see also). This will apply to incomes over £150,000.

But will this raise more tax revenue? The question here concerns incentive effects. Will the higher rate of income tax discourage work by those earning £150,000 or encourage tax avoidance or tax evasion, so that the total tax take is reduced? The Conservatives say the answer is yes. The Labour party says no, claiming that there will still be an increase in tax revenue.

The possible effects are summed up in the Laffer curve (see The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). As the previous post stated:

These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.

As Labour is claiming that re-introducing the 50% top rate of income tax will increase tax revenue, the implication is that the economy is to the left of the top of the Laffer curve: that, at current level of income, the curve is still rising.

Work by HMRC, and published in the document The Exchequer effect of the 50 per cent additional rate of income tax, suggested that the previous cut in the top rate from 50% to 45% would cut revenue by around £3.5 billion if there were no incentive effect, but with the extra work that would be generated, the cut would be a mere £100 million. This implies, other things being equal, that a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would raise only a tiny bit of extra taxes.

However, the HMRC analysis has been criticised and especially its assumptions about the incentive effects on work. Then there is the question of whether a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would have exactly the reverse effect of a cut from 50% to 45%. And then there is the question of how much HMRC could reduce tax evasion and avoidance.

The following article from the Institute for Fiscal Studies examines the effects. However, the authors conclude that:

… at the moment, the best evidence we have still suggests that raising the top rate of tax would raise little revenue and make, at best, a marginal contribution to reducing the budget deficit an incoming government would face after the next election.

But there is also the question of equity. Putting aside the question of how much revenue would be raised, is it fair to raise the top rate of tax for those on high incomes? Would it make an important contribution to reducing inequality? This normative question lies at the heart of the different views of the world between left and right and is not a question that can be answered by economic analysis.

50p tax – strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve? Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson and David Phillips (Jan 2014)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between tax evasion and tax avoidance.
  2. How would it be possible for a rise in tax rates to generated less tax revenue?
  3. Could policies shift the Laffer curve as opposed to merely resulting in a move along the curve?
  4. What is meant by ‘taxable income elasticity (TIE)’? What are its determinants?
  5. Is the taxable income elasticity at the top of the Laffer curve equal to, above or below zero? Explain.
  6. Why did the Office for Budget Responsibility chairman, Robert Chote, conclude that, whatever the precise answer, we were ‘strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve’?
  7. Explain why ‘there is little additional evidence to suggest that a 50p rate would raise more than was estimated by HMRC back in 2012′.
  8. What contribution can economists make to the debate on the desirability of reducing inequality?
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A measure of well-being

Although every recession is different (for example in terms of length and magnitude), they do tend to have a few things in common. The focus of this blog is on consumer income and how it is affected in the aftermath of (or even during) a recession. According to data from the ONS, real national income per head has fallen by more than 13% since the start of 2008.

This latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, UK incomes have fallen by much more than they did in the 2 previous recessions experienced in the UK (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). We would normally expect consumer incomes to fall during and possibly directly after a recession, as national output falls and confidence tends to be and remain low. However, the crucial thing to consider with falling consumer incomes is how it affects purchasing power. If my income is cut by 50%, but prices fall by 80%, then I’m actually better off in terms of my purchasing power.

The data from the ONS is all about purchasing power and shows how UK consumer incomes have fallen at the same time as inflation having been relatively high. It is the combination of these two variables that has been ‘eating into the value of the cash that people were earning’. Comparing the incomes in the four years after the 2008 recession with similar periods following the early 1980s and 1990s recession, the ONS has shown that this most recent recession had a much larger effect on consumer well-being. Part of this may be due to the rapid growth in incomes prior to the start of the credit crunch.

It’s not just the working population that has seen their incomes fall since 2008 – the retired population has also seen a decline in income and according to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is the wealthiest portion of older households that have taken the largest hit since 2007. According to the IFS, the average person over 50 has experienced a fall in their gross wealth of about 10%, or close to £60,000. Of course for these older households, the concern is whether they will be able to make up this lost wealth before they retire. The concern for everyone is how long until incomes and purchasing power increase back to pre-crisis levels. The following articles consider this latest data on economic well-being and the impact the recession has had.

UK wellbeing still below financial crisis levels Guardian, Larry Elliott and Randeep Ramesh (23/10/12)
National income per head ‘down 13% in four years’ BBC Newsd (23/10/12)
Financial crisis hits UK retirement income Financial Times, Norma Cohen (23/10/12)
Over 50s ‘left £160,000 out of pocket by the financial crisis’ The Telegraph, James Kirkup (23/10/12)
Those near retirement in UK hit hard by crisis Wall Street Journal, Paul Hannon (23/10/12)
Living standards down 13pc since start of recession The Telegraph (23/10/12)

Questions

  1. Why is net national income per head said to be the best measure of economic well-being?
  2. Why is it so important to take into account inflation when measuring wellbeing?
  3. What explanation can be given for the larger fall in consumer incomes following the 2008 recession relative to the previous 2 recessions?
  4. According to data from the IFS, the richest portion of older households have suffered the most in terms of lost wealth. Why is this the case?
  5. What is meant by purchasing power?
  6. GDP has fallen by about 7%, whereas national income per head, taking inflation into account is down by over 13%. What is the explanation for these 2 different figures?
  7. How can recessions differ from each other? Think about the length, the magnitude of each.
  8. Is GDP a good measure of economic well-being? Are there any other ways we can measure it?
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A lost decade (or more)

Twice a year, directly after the government’s Spring Budget and Autumn Statement, the Institute for Fiscal Studies gives its verdict on the performance of the economy and the government’s economic policies – past and planned. This year is no exception. After the Chancellor had delivered his Autumn Statement, the next day the IFS published its analysis. And what grim reading it makes.

• Real average (mean) incomes in 2011 will have fallen by 3%.
• Between 2009/10 and 2012/13, real median household incomes will have fallen by 7.4%
• Over the same period, real mean household income will have fallen by 4.7% – easily the biggest 3-year drop since records began in the mid 1950s.
• Real mean household incomes will be no higher in 2015/16 than in 2002/03.
• The poorest will be hardest hit by the measures announced in the Autumn Statement.
• Infrastructure spending of £4bn to £5bn will only go some way offsetting the effects of £17bn capital spending cuts over the Parliament.
• The economy will be 3.5% smaller in 2016 than thought in March.
• The structural budget deficit is 1.6% higher than thought in March.
• That will extend to 6 years the period over which total spending will have been cut year on year.

Referring to this last point, Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, said in his Opening Remarks, “One begins to run out of superlatives for describing quite how unprecedented that is. Certainly there has been no period like it in the UK in the last 60 years.” Referring to the fall in real incomes, he said, “Again we are running out of superlatives to describe just how extraordinary are some of these changes.”

Commentators have referred to the “lost decade” where the average Briton will not have seen an increase in real income.

Articles
Autumn Statement 2011: Families face ‘lost decade’ as spending power suffers biggest fall since 1950s, says IFS The Telegraph, Matthew Holehouse (30/11/11)
Autumn Statement 2011: IFS talks down George Osborne’s growth plan The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (30/11/11)
Autumn statement study by IFS predicts lost decade for UK living standards Guardian, Katie Allen and Larry Elliott (30/11/11)
Britons Enduring 13-Year Squeeze on Living Standards, IFS Says Bloomberg Businessweek, Gonzalo Vina (30/11/11)
The UK now faces a ‘lost decade’ Financial Times, Martin Wolf (29/11/11)
Warning of seven-year squeeze Independent, James Tapsfield, Andrew Woodcock (30/11/11)
Osborne’s impact laid bare: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer Independent, Ben Chu, Oliver Wright (1/12/11)
Incomes to fall 7.4% in three years, says IFS BBC News (30/11/11)
No growth in income for 14 years, warns IFS BBC News, IFS director Paul Johnson (30/11/11)
UK economy: Third worst year since the war BBC Today Programme, IFS director Paul Johnson (29/11/11)

IFS Analysis
Autumn Statement 2011 and the OBR Economic and Fiscal Outlook IFS (30/11/11)

Questions

  1. Why is it likely that the median real income will have fallen by more than the mean real income?
  2. Why is the structural deficit now estimated to be some 1.6 percentage points higher than was estimated by the OBR back in March 2011?
  3. How could the structural deficit be affected by a prolonged recession? Is this a case of hysteresis?
  4. What are the government’s fiscal rules?
  5. Is the IFS predicting that the rules will be met? What might adversely affect this prediction?
  6. If technological progress is allowing a continuous increase in potential real GDP, why will median real incomes have fallen over the 13 years between 2002/03 and 2015/16? What might have affected long-term aggregate supply adversely?
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