Policymakers around the world have used Gross Domestic Product as the main gauge of economic performance – and have often adopted policies that aim to maximise its rate of growth. Generation after generation of economists have committed significant time and effort to thinking about the factors that influence GDP growth, on the premise that an expanding and healthy economy is one that sees its GDP increasing every year at a sufficient rate.
But is economic output a good enough indicator of national economic wellbeing? Costanza et al (2014) (see link below) argue that, despite its merits, GDP can be a ‘misleading measure of national success’:
GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country. Meanwhile, researchers have become much better at measuring what actually does make life worthwhile. The environmental and social effects of GDP growth is a misleading measure of national success. Countries should act now to embrace new metrics.
The limitations of GDP growth as a measure of economic wellbeing and national strength are becoming increasingly clear in today’s world. Some of the world’s wealthiest countries are plagued by discontent, with a growth in populism and social discontent – attitudes which are often fuelled by high rates of poverty and economic hardship. In a recent report titled ‘The Living Standards Audit 2018’ published by the Resolution Foundation, a UK economic thinktank (see link below), the authors found that child poverty rose in 2016–17 as a result of declining incomes of the poorest third of UK households:
While the economic profile of UK households has changed, living standards – with the exception of pensioner households – have mostly stagnated since the mid-2000s. Typical household incomes are not much higher than they were in 2003–04. This stagnation in living standards for many has brought with it a rise in poverty rates for low to middle income families. Over a third of low to middle income families with children are in poverty, up from a quarter in the mid-2000s, and nearly two-fifths say that they can’t afford a holiday away for their children once a year. On the other hand, the share of non-working families in poverty has fallen, though not by enough to prevent an overall rise in poverty since 2010.
Their projections also show that this rise in poverty was likely to have continued in 2017–18:
Although the increase in broad measures of inequality were relatively muted last year, our nowcast suggests that there was a pronounced rise in poverty (measured after housing costs[…]. The increase in overall poverty (from 22.1 to 23.2 per cent) was the largest since 1988. But this was dwarfed by the increase in child poverty, which rose from 30.3 per cent to 33.4 per cent. […]The fortunes of middle-income households diverged from those towards the bottom of the distribution and so a greater share of households, and children, found themselves below the poverty threshold.
A simple literature search on Scope (or even Google Scholar) shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of journal articles and reports in the last 10 years on this topic. We do talk more about the limitations of GDP, but we are still using it as the main measure of national economic performance.
Is it then time to stop focusing our attention on GDP growth exclusively and start considering broader metrics of social development? And what would such metrics look like? Both interesting questions that we will try to address in coming blogs.
- What are the main strengths and weakness of using GDP as measure of economic performance?
- Is high GDP growth alone enough to foster economic and social wellbeing? Explain your answer using examples.
- Write a list of alternative measures that could be used alongside GDP-based metrics to measure economic and social progress. Explain your answer.
The median pay of chief executives of the FTSE 100 companies rose 11% in 2017 to £3.93 million per year, according to figures released by the High Pay Centre. By contrast, the median pay of full-time workers rose by just 2%. Given two huge pay increases for the CEOs of Persimmon and Melrose Industries of £47.1 million and £42.8 million respectively, the mean CEO pay rose even more – by 23%, from £4.58 million in 2016 to £5.66 million in 2017. This brings the ratio of the mean pay of FTSE 100 CEOs to that of their employees to 145:1. In 2000, the ratio was around 45:1.
These huge pay increases are despite criticisms from shareholders and the government over excessive boardroom pay awards and the desire for more transparency. In fact, under new legislation, companies with more than 250 employees must publish the ratio of the CEO’s total remuneration to the full-time equivalent pay of their UK employees on the 25th, 50th (median) and 75th percentiles. The annual figures will be for pay starting from the financial year beginning in 2019, which for most companies would mean the year from April 2019 to April 2020. Such a system has been introduced in the USA this year.
So why has the gap in pay widened so much? One reason is that there is no formal mechanism whereby workers can apply downward pressure on such awards. Although Theresa May, in her campaign to become Prime Minister in 2016, promised to put workers on company boards, the government has since abandoned the idea.
Executive pay is awarded by remuneration committees. Membership of such committees consists of independent non-executive directors, but their degree of independence has frequently been called into question and there has been much criticism of such committees being influenced by their highest paying competitors or peers. This has had the effect of ratcheting up executive pay.
Then there is the question of the non-salary element in executive pay. The incentive and bonus payments are often linked to the short-term performance of the company, as reflected in, for example, the company’s share price. In a period when share prices in general rise rapidly – as we have seen over the past two years – executive pay tends to rise rapidly too. A frequent criticism of large UK businesses is that they have been too short-termist. What is more, bonuses are often paid despite poor performance.
There has been some move in recent years to make incentive pay linked more to long-term performance, but this has still led to many CEOs getting large pay increases despite lack-lustre long-term performance.
Then there is the question of shareholders and their influence on executive pay. Despite protests by many smaller shareholders, a large proportion of shares are owned by investment funds and their managers are often only too happy to vote through large executive pay increases at shareholder meetings.
So, while the pressures for containing the rise in executive pay remain small, the pay gap is likely to continue to widen. This raises the whole question of a society becoming increasingly divided between the few at the top and a large number of people ‘just getting by’ – or not even that. Will this make society even more fractured and ill at ease with itself?
Information and data
- How would you set about establishing whether CEOs’ pay is related to their marginal revenue product?
- To what extent is executive pay a reflection of oligopolistic/oligopsonistic behaviour?
- In what ways can game theory shed light on the process of setting the remuneration packages of CEOs? Is there a Nash equilibrium?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of linking senior executives’ remuneration to (a) short-term company performance; (b) long-term company performance?
- What is/are the best indicator(s) of long-term company performance for determining the worth of senior executives?
- Consider the arguments for and against capping the ratio of CEOs’ remuneration to a particular ratio of either the mean or median pay of employees. What particular ratio might be worth considering for such a cap?
The Economist is probably not the kind of newspaper that you will read more than once per issue – certainly not two years after its publication date. That is because, by definition, financial news articles are ephemeral: they have greater value, the more recent they are – especially in the modern financial world, where change can be strikingly fast. To my surprise, however, I found myself reading again an article on inequality that I had first read two years ago – and it is (of course) still relevant today.
The title of the article was ‘You may be higher in the global wealth pyramid than you think’ and it discusses exactly that: how much wealth does it take for someone to be considered ‘rich’? The answer to this question is of course, ‘it depends’. And it does depend on which group you compare yourself against. Although this may feel obvious, some of the statistics that are presented in this article may surprise you.
According to the article
If you had $2200 to your name (adding together your bank deposits, financial investments and property holdings, and subtracting your debts) you might not think yourself terribly fortunate. But you would be wealthier than half the world’s population, according to this year’s Global Wealth Report by the Crédit Suisse Research Institute. If you had $71 560 or more, you would be in the top tenth. If you were lucky enough to own over $744 400 you could count yourself a member of the global 1% that voters everywhere are rebelling against.
For many (including yours truly) these numbers may come as a surprise when you first see them. $2200 in today’s exchange rate is about £1640. And this is wealth, not income – including all earthly possessions (net of debt). £1640 of wealth is enough to put you ahead of half of the planet’s population. Have a $774 400 (£556 174 – about the average price of a two-bedroom flat in London) and – congratulations! You are part of the global richest 1% everyone is complaining about…
Such comparisons are certainly thought provoking. They show how unevenly wealth is distributed across countries. They also show that countries which are more open to trade are more likely to have benefited the most from it. Take a closer look at the statistics and you will realise that you are more likely to be rich (compared to the global average) if you live in one of these countries.
Of course, wealth inequality does not happen only across countries – it happens also within countries. You can own a two-bedroom flat in London (and be, therefore, part of the 1% global elite), but having to live on a very modest budget because your income (which is a flow variable, as opposed to wealth, which is a stock variable) has not grown fast enough in relation to other parts of the national population.
Would you be better off if there were less trade? Certainly not – you would probably be even poorer, as trade theories (and most of the empirical evidence I am aware of) assert. Why do we then talk so much about trade wars and trade restrictions recently? Why do we elect politicians who advocate such restrictions? It is probably easier to answer these questions using political than economic theory (although game theory may have some interesting insights to offer – have you heard of the ‘Chicken game‘?). But as I am neither political scientists nor a game theorist, I will just continue to wonder about it.
Articles and information
- Were you surprised by the statistics mentioned in this report? Explain why.
- Do you think that income inequality is a natural consequence of economic growth? Are there pro-growth policies that can be used to tackle it?
- Identify three ways in which widening income inequality can hurt economies (and societies).
Each January, world political and business leaders gather at the ski resort of Davos in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. They discuss a range of economic and political issues with the hope of guiding policy.
This year, leaders meet at a time when the global political context has and is changing rapidly. This year the focus is on ‘Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World’. As the Forum’s website states:
The global context has changed dramatically: geostrategic fissures have re-emerged on multiple fronts with wide-ranging political, economic and social consequences. Realpolitik is no longer just a relic of the Cold War. Economic prosperity and social cohesion are not one and the same. The global commons cannot protect or heal itself.
One of the main ‘fissures’ which threatens social cohesion is the widening gap between the very rich and the rest of the world. Indeed, inequality and poverty is one of the main agenda items at the Davos meeting and the Forum website includes an article titled, ‘We have built an unequal world. Here’s how we can change it’ (see second link in the Articles below). The article shows how the top 1% captured 27% of GDP growth between 1980 and 2016.
The first Guardian article below identifies seven different policy options to tackle the problem of inequality of income and wealth and asks you to say, using a drop-down menu, which one you think is most important. Perhaps it’s something you would like to do.
Project Davos: what’s the single best way to close the world’s wealth gap? The Guardian, Aidan Mac Guill (19/1/18)
We have built an unequal world. Here’s how we can change it World Economic Forum, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/18)
Oxfam highlights sharp inequality as Davos elite gathers ABC news, Pan Pylas (21/1/18)
Inequality gap widens as 42 people hold same wealth as 3.7bn poorest The Guardian, Larry Elliott (22/1/18)
There’s a huge gender component to income inequality that we’re ignoring Business Insider, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (22/1/18)
Ahead of Davos, even the 1 percent worry about inequality Washington Post, Heather Long (22/1/18)
“Fractures, Fears and Failures:” World’s Ruling Elites Stare into the Abyss GlobalResearch, Bill Van Auken (18/1/18)
Why the world isn’t getting a pay raise CNN Money, Patrick Gillespie and Ivana Kottasová (1/11/17)
Articles on Inequality World Economic Forum
- Distinguish between income and wealth. In global terms, which is distributed more unequally?
- Why has global inequality of both income and wealth grown?
- Explain which of the seven policy options identified by the Guardian you would choose/did choose?
- Go through each one of the seven policy options and identify what costs would be associated with pursuing it.
- Identify any other policy options for tackling the problem.
Where you live in Great Britain can have a profound effect on your earning potential. According to a report published by the Social Mobility Commission, there is a growing geographical divide, with more affluent areas getting relatively richer, while ‘many other parts of the country are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially’.
The Commission uses a Social Mobility Index to rank the 324 local authorities in England. The index is a measure of the social mobility prospects for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is ‘made up of 16 key performance indicators spanning each major life stage’.
The index shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have lower educational attainment, poorer initial jobs and poorer prospects for advancement in the labour market. Often they are stuck in low paid jobs with little chance of getting on the housing ladder and fewer chances of moving away from the area.
The problem is not simply one of a North-South divide or one of inner cities versus the suburbs. Many inner-city areas have been regenerated, with high incomes and high social and geographical mobility. Other inner-city areas remain deprived.
The worst performing areas are remote rural or coastal areas and former industrial areas, where industries have closed. As the author of the report states in the Guardian article linked below:
These areas have fewer specialist teachers, fewer good schools, fewer good jobs and worse transport links. … Many of these areas have suffered from a lack of regeneration: few high-paying industries are located there, and they often exhibit relatively limited job opportunities and clusters of low pay.
The problem often exists within areas, with some streets exhibiting growing affluence, where the residents have high levels of social mobility, while other streets have poor housing and considerable levels of poverty and deprivation. Average incomes for such areas thus mask this type of growing divide within areas. Indeed, some of the richest areas have worse outcomes for disadvantaged children than generally poorer areas.
There are various regional and local multiplier effects that worsen the situation. Where people from disadvantaged backgrounds are successful, they tend to move away from the deprived areas to more affluent ones, thereby boosting the local economy in such areas and providing no stimulus to the deprived areas. And so the divide grows.
Policies, according to the report, need to focus public investment, and incentives for private investment, in deprived areas. They should not focus simply on whole regions. You can read the specific policy recommendations in the articles below.
Social mobility is a stark postcode lottery. Too many in Britain are being left behind The Guardian, Alan Milburn (28/11/17)
State of the Nation – Sector Response FE News (28/11/17)
Social mobility: the worst places to grow up poor BBC News, Judith Burns and Adina Campbell (28/11/17)
How Britain’s richest regions offer worst prospects for poor young people Independent, May Bulman (28/11/17)
Small Towns Worst Places In Britain For Social Mobility, New ‘State Of The Nation’ Report Reveals Huffington Post, Paul Waugh (28/11/17)
Social mobility in Great Britain: fifth state of the nation report Social Mobility Commission, News (28/11/17)
Fifth State of the Nation Report Social Mobility Commission, News (28/11/17)
- Explain how local multipliers operate.
- What is the relationship between social immobility as identified in the report and the elasticity of supply of labour in specific jobs?
- What is the link between geographical, occupational and social mobility?
- Explain why, apart from London, English cities are ‘punching below their weight on social mobility outcomes’.
- Go through each of the key policy recommendations of the report and consider the feasibility of introducing them.
- What policies could be adopted to retain good teachers in schools in deprived areas?
- To what extent might an increased provision of training ease the problem of social mobility?
- Investigate policies adopted in other European countries to tackle local deprivation. Are there lessons that can be learned by the UK government, devolved governments, local authorities or other agencies?