In various blogs, we’ve looked at the UK’s low productivity growth, both relative to other countries and relative to the pre-1998 financial crisis (see, for example, The UK productivity puzzle and Productivity should we be optimistic?). Productivity is what drives long-term economic growth as it determines potential GDP. If long-term growth is seen as desirable, then a fall in productivity represents a serious economic problem.
Recent data suggest that the problem, if anything, is worse than previously thought and does not seem to be getting better. Productivity is now some 21% below what it would have been had productivity growth continued at the rate experienced in the years before the financial crisis (see second chart below).
In its latest productivity statistics, the ONS reports that labour productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) fell by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2017. This follows a fall of 0.5% in quarter 1. Over the whole year to 2017 Q2, productivity fell by 0.3%.
Most other major developed countries have much higher productivity than the UK. In 2016, Italy’s productivity was 9.9% higher than the UK’s; the USA’s was 27.9%, France’s was 28.7% and Germany’s was 34.5% higher. What is more, their productivity has grown faster (see chart).
But what of the future? The Office for Budget responsibility publishes forecasts for productivity growth, but has consistently overestimated it. After predicting several times in the past that UK productivity growth would rise towards its pre-financial crisis trend of around 2% per year, in its October 2017 Forecast evaluation Report it recognises that this was too optimisitic and revises downwards its forecasts for productivity growth for 2017 and beyond.
As the period of historically weak productivity growth lengthens, it seems less plausible to assume that potential and actual productivity growth will recover over the medium term to the extent assumed in our most recent forecasts. Over the past five years, growth in output per hour has averaged 0.2 per cent. This looks set to be a better guide to productivity growth in 2017 than our March forecast of 1.6 per cent.
Looking further ahead, it no longer seems central to assume that productivity growth will recover to the 1.8 per cent we assumed in March 2017 within five years.
But why has productivity growth not returned to pre-crisis levels? There are five possible explanations.
The first is that there has been labour hoarding. But with companies hiring more workers, this is unlikely still to be true for most employers.
The second is that very low interest rates have allowed some low-productivity companies to survive, which might otherwise have been driven out of business.
The third is a reluctance of banks to lend for investment. After the financial crisis this was driven by the need for them to repair their balance sheets. Today, it may simply be greater risk aversion than before the financial crisis, especially with the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.
The fourth is a fall in firms’ desire to invest. Although investment has recovered somewhat from the years directly following the financial crisis, it is still lower than might be expected in an economy that is no longer is recession. Indeed, there has been a much slower investment recovery than occurred after previous recessions.
The fifth is greater flexibility in the labour market, which has subdued wages and has allowed firms to respond to higher demand by taking on more relatively low-productivity workers rather than having to invest in human capital or technology.
Whatever the explanation, the solution is for more investment in both technology and in physical and human capital, whether by the private or the public sector. The question is how to stimulate such investment.
UK productivity lagging well behind G7 peers – ONS Financial Times, Katie Martin (6/10/17)
UK productivity sees further fall BBC News (6/10/17)
UK resigned to endless productivity gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (10/10/17)
UK productivity estimates must be ‘significantly’ lowered, admits OBR The Guardian, Richard Partington and Phillip Inman (10/10/17)
UK productivity growth to remain sluggish, says OBR BBC News (10/10/17)
Official Treasury forecaster slashes UK productivity growth forecast, signalling hole in public finances for November Budget Independent, Ben Chu (10/10/17)
The Guardian view on Britain’s productive forces: they are not working The Guardian, Editorial (10/10/17)
Mind the productivity gap: the story behind sluggish earnings The Telegraph, Anna Isaac (26/10/17)
Data and statistical analysis
Labour productivity: April to June 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (6/10/17)
International comparisons of productivity ONS Dataset (6/10/17)
Forecast evaluation report OBR (October 2017)
- Explain the relationship between labour productivity and potential GDP.
- What is the relationship between actual growth in GDP and labour productivity?
- Why does the UK lag France and Germany more in output per hour than in output per worker, but the USA more in output per worker than in output per hour?
- Is there anything about the UK system of financing investment that results in lower investment than in other developed countries?
- Why are firms reluctant to invest?
- In what ways could public investment increase productivity?
- What measures would you recommend to encourage greater investment and why?
- How do expectations affect the growth in labour productivity?
With the Conservatives having lost their majority in Parliament in the recent UK election, there is renewed discussion of the form that Brexit might take. EU states are members of the single market and the customs union. A ‘hard Brexit’ involves leaving both and this was the government’s stance prior to the election. But there is now talk of a softer Brexit, which might mean retaining membership of the single market and/or customs union.
The single market
Belonging to the single market means accepting the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. It also involves tariff-free trade within the single market and adopting a common set of rules and regulations over trade, product standards, safety, packaging, etc., with disputes settled by the European Court of Justice. Membership of the single market involves paying budgetary contributions. Norway and Iceland are members of the single market.
The single market brings huge benefits from free trade with no administrative barriers from customs checks and paperwork. But it would probably prove impossible to negotiate remaining in the single market with an opt out on free movement of labour. Controlling immigration from EU countries was a key part of the Leave campaign.
The customs union
This involves all EU countries adopting the same tariffs (customs duties) on imports from outside the EU. These tariffs are negotiated by the European Commission with non-EU countries on a country-by-country basis. Goods imported from outside the EU are charged tariffs in the country of import and can then be sold freely around the EU with no further tariffs.
Remaining a member of the customs union would allow the UK to continue trading freely in the EU, subject to meeting various non-tariff regulations. It would also allow free ‘borderless’ trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, being a member of the customs union would prevent the UK from negotiating separate trade deals with non-EU countries. The ability to negotiate such deals has been argued to be one of the main benefits of leaving the EU.
Free(r) trade area
The UK could negotiate a trade deal with the EU. But it is highly unlikely that such a deal could be in place by March 2019, the date when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU. At that point, trade barriers would be imposed, including between the two parts of the island of Ireland. Such deals are very complex, especially in the area of services, which are the largest category of UK exports. Negotiating tariff-free or reduced-tariff trade is only a small part of the problem; the biggest part involves negotiating product standards, regulations and other non-tariff barriers.
All the above options thus involve serious problems and the government will be pushed from various sides, not least within the Conservative Party, for different degrees of ‘softness’ or ‘hardness’ of Brexit. What is more, the pressure from business for free trade with the EU is likely to grow. Brexit may mean Brexit, but just what form it will take is very unclear.
Free trade area, single market, customs union – what’s the difference? BBC News, Jonty Bloom (12/6/17)
Brexit: What are the options? BBC News (12/6/17)
After the election, the real test: Brexi The Economist (8/6/17)
May’s Ministers Plot Softer Brexit to Keep UK in Single Market Bloomberg, Tim Ross, Alex Morales and Svenja O’Donnell (11/6/17)
UK’s Hung Parliament Raises Business Hopes for a Softer Brexit Bloomberg, Stephanie Baker and James Paton (12/6/17)
Do not exaggerate the effect the election will have on Brexit Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau (11/6/17)
What is soft Brexit? How could it work as UK negotiates leaving the EU? Independent, May Bulman (12/6/17)
Brexit-lite back on the table as Britain rethinks its options after election The Guardian, Dan Roberts (11/6/17)
Review plan to quit EU Customs Union, urges FTA FoodManufacture.co.uk, James Ridler (12/6/17)
Freight leaders urge government to review decision to leave EU customs union RTM (12/6/17)
Making Brexit work for British Business: Key Execution Priorities M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 77, Harvard Kennedy School, Peter Sands, Ed Balls, Sebastian Leape and Nyasha Weinberg (June 2017)
- Explain the trading agreement between Norway and the EU.
- How does the Norwegian arrangement with the EU differ from the Turkish one?
- What are meant by the terms ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’?
- How does a customs union differ from a free trade area?
- Is it possible to have (a) a customs union without a single market; (b) a single market without a customs union?
- To what extent is it in the EU’s interests to negotiate a deal with the UK which lets it maintain access to the customs union without having free movement of labour?
- The EU insists that talks about future trading arrangements between the UK and the EU can take place only after sufficient progress has been made on the terms of the ‘divorce’. What elements are included in the divorce terms?
- If agreement is not reached by 29 March 2019, what happens and what would be the consequences?
- Will a hung parliament, or at least a government supported by the DUP on a confidence and supply basis, make it more or less likely that there will be a hard Brexit?
- For what reasons may the EU favour (a) a hard Brexit; (b) a soft Brexit?
In the light of the Brexit vote and the government’s position that the UK will leave the single market and customs union, there has been much discussion of the need for the UK to achieve trade deals. Indeed, a UK-US trade deal was one of the key issues on Theresa May’s agenda when she met Donald Trump just a week after his inauguration.
But what forms can a trade deal take? What does achieving one entail? What are likely to be the various effects on different industries – who will be the winners and losers? And what role does comparative advantage play? The articles below examine these questions.
Given that up until Brexit, the UK already has free trade with the rest of the EU, there is a lot to lose if barriers are erected when the UK leaves. In the meantime, it is vital to start negotiating new trade deals, a process that can be extremely difficult and time-consuming.
A far as new trade arrangements with the EU are concerned, these cannot be agreed until after the UK leaves the EU, in approximately two years’ time, although the government is keen that preliminary discussions take place as soon as Article 50 is triggered, which the government plans to do by the end of March.
Trade deals are difficult to negotiate and Britain lacks the skills for the job The Conversation, Nigel Driffield (27/1/17)
Why a U.S.-U.K. Trade Deal Could be Harder than it Sounds Newsweek, Josh Lowe (26/1/17)
UK-US trade deal will have ‘very small upsides’ for Britain, says former Bank of England economist Independent, Rob Merrick (26/1/17)
Trump says he wants a U.K. trade deal. Don’t hold your breath CNN Money, Alanna Petroff (23/1/16)
Reality Check: Can there be a quick UK-USA trade deal? BBC News, Jonty Bloom (16/1/17)
- What elements would be included in a UK-US trade deal?
- Explain the gains from trade that can result from exploiting comparative advantage.
- Explain the statement in the article that allowing trade to be determined by comparative advantage is ‘often politically unacceptable, as governments generally look to protect jobs and tax revenues, as well as to protect activities that fund innovation’.
- Why is it difficult to work out in advance the likely effects on trade of a trade deal?
- What would be the benefits and costs to the UK of allowing all countries’ imports into the UK tariff free?
- What are meant by ‘trade creation’ and ‘trade diversion’? What determines the extent to which a trade deal will result in trade creation or trade diversion?
Theresa May has said that the UK will quit the EU single market and seek to negotiate new trade deals, both with the EU and with other countries. As she said, “What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market.” It would also mean leaving the customs union, which sets common external tariffs for goods imported into the EU.
The single market guarantees free movement of goods, services, labour and capital between EU members. There are no internal tariffs and common rules and regulations concerning products, production and trade. By leaving the single market, the UK will be able to restrict immigration from EU countries, as it is currently allowed to do from non-EU countries.
A customs union is a free trade area with common external tariffs and uniform methods of handling imports. There are also no, or only minimal, checks and other bureaucracies at borders between members. The EU customs union means that individual EU countries are not permitted to do separate trade deals with non-EU countries.
Once the UK has left the EU, probably in around two years’ time, it will then be able to have different trade arrangements from the EU with countries outside the EU. Leaving the customs union would mean that the UK would face the EU’s common external tariff or around 5% on most goods, and 10% on cars.
Leaving the EU single market and customs union has been dubbed ‘hard Brexit’. Most businesses and many politicians had hoped that elements of the single market could be retained, such as tariff-free trade between the UK and the EU and free movement of capital. However, by leaving the single market, access to it will depend on the outcome of negotiations.
Negotiations will take place once Article 50 – the formal notice of leaving – has been invoked. The government has said that it will do this by the end of March this year. Then, under EU legislation, there will be up to two years of negotiations, at which point the UK will leave the EU.
The articles look at the nature of the EU single market and customs union and at the implications for the UK of leaving them.
Britain to leave EU market as May sets ‘hard Brexit’ course Reuters, Kylie MacLellan and William James (17/1/17)
Brexit: UK to leave single market, says Theresa May BBC News (17/1/17)
How Does U.K. Want to Trade With EU Post-Brexit?: QuickTake Q&A Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy (17/1/17)
Brexit at-a-glance: What we learned from Theresa May BBC News, Tom Moseley (17/1/17)
Theresa May unveils plan to quit EU single market under Brexit Financial Times, Henry Mance (17/1/17)
Doing Brexit the hard way The Economist (21/1/17)
Theresa May confirms it’ll be a hard Brexit – here’s what that means for trade The Conversation, Billy Melo Araujo (17/1/17)
How to read Theresa May’s Brexit speech The Conversation, Paul James Cardwell (17/1/17)
Theresa May’s hard Brexit hinges on a dated vision of global trade The Conversation, Martin Smith (17/1/17)
Brexit: What is the EU customs union and why should people care that the UK is leaving it? Independent, Ben Chapman (17/1/17)
- Explain the difference between a free-trade area, a customs union, a common market and a single market.
- What arrangement does Norway have with the EU?
- How would the UK’s future relationship with the EU differ from Norway’s?
- Distinguish between trade creation and trade diversion from joining a customs union. Who loses from trade diversion?
- Will leaving the EU mean that trade which was diverted can be reversed?
- What will determine the net benefits from new trade arrangements compared with the current situation of membership of the EU?
- What are the possible implications of hard Brexit for (a) inward investment and (b) companies currently in the UK of relocating to other parts of the EU? Why is the magnitude of such effects extremely hard to predict?
- Explain what is meant by ‘passporting rights’ for financial services firms. Why are they unlikely still to have such rights after Brexit?
- Discuss the argument put forward in The Conversation article that ‘Theresa May’s hard Brexit hinges on a dated vision of global trade’.
We’ve considered Keynesian economics and policy in several blogs. For example, a year ago in the post, What would Keynes say?, we looked at two articles arguing for Keynesian expansionary polices. More recently, in the blogs, End of the era of liquidity traps? and A risky dose of Keynesianism at the heart of Trumponomics, we looked at whether Donald Trump’s proposed policies are more Keynesian than his predecessor’s and at the opportunities and risks of such policies.
The article below, Larry Elliott updates the story by asking what Keynes would recommend today if he were alive. It also links to two other articles which add to the story.
Elliott asks his imaginary Keynes, for his analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 and of what has happened since. Keynes, he argues, would explain the crisis in terms of excessive borrowing, both private and public, and asset price bubbles. The bubbles then burst and people cut back on spending to claw down their debts.
Keynes, says Elliott, would approve of the initial response to the crisis: expansionary monetary policy (both lower interest rates and then quantitative easing) backed up by expansionary fiscal policy in 2009. But expansionary fiscal policies were short lived. Instead, austerity fiscal policies were adopted in an attempt to reduce public-sector deficits and, ultimately, public-sector debt. This slowed down the recovery and meant that much of the monetary expansion went into inflating the prices of assets, such as housing and shares, rather than in financing higher investment.
He also asks his imaginary Keynes what he’d recommend as the way forward today. Keynes outlines three alternatives to the current austerity policies, each involving expansionary fiscal policy:
||Trump’s policies of tax cuts combined with some increase in infrastructure spending. The problems with this are that there would be too little of the public infrastructure spending that the US economy needs and that the stimulus would be poorly focused.
||Government taking advantage of exceptionally low interest rates to borrow to invest in infrastructure. “Governments could do this without alarming the markets, Keynes says, if they followed his teachings and borrowed solely to invest.”
||Use money created through quantitative easing to finance public-sector investment in infrastructure and housing. “Building homes with QE makes sense; inflating house prices with QE does not.” (See the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy and Global warning).
Increased government spending on infrastructure has been recommended by international organisations, such as the OECD and the IMF (see OECD goes public and The world economic outlook – as seen by the IMF). With the rise in populism and worries about low economic growth throughout much of the developed world, perhaps Keynesian fiscal policy will become more popular with governments.
Keynesian economics: is it time for the theory to rise from the dead?, The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/12/16)
- What are the main factors determining a country’s long-term rate of economic growth?
- What are the benefits and limitations of using fiscal policy to raise global economic growth?
- What are the benefits and limitations of using new money created by the central bank to fund infrastructure spending?
- Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
- Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
- Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
- Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
- What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
- What supply-side policies could the government adopt to back up monetary and fiscal policy? Are the there lessons here from the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows’?