The last two weeks have been quite busy for macroeconomists, HM Treasury staff and statisticians in the UK. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Phillip Hammond, delivered his (fairly upbeat) Spring Budget Statement on 13 March, highlighting among other things the ‘stellar performance’ of UK labour markets. According to a Treasury Press Release:
Employment has increased by 3 million since 2010, which is the equivalent of 1,000 people finding work every day. The unemployment rate is close to a 40-year low. There is also a joint record number of women in work – 15.1 million. The OBR predict there will be over 500,000 more people in work by 2022.
To put these figures in perspective, according to recent ONS estimates, in January 2018 the rate of UK unemployment was 4.3 per cent – down from 4.4 per cent in December 2017. This is the lowest it has been since 1975. This is of course good news: a thriving labour market is a prerequisite for a healthy economy and a good sign that the UK is on track to full recovery from its 2008 woes.
The Bank of England welcomed the news with a mixture of optimism and relief, and signalled that the time for the next interest rate hike is nigh: most likely at the next MPC meeting in May.
But what is the practical implication of all this for UK consumers and workers?
For workers it means it’s a ‘sellers’ market’: as more people get into employment, it becomes increasingly difficult for certain sectors to fill new vacancies. This is pushing nominal wages up. Indeed, UK wages increased on average by 2.6 per cent year-to-year.
In real terms, however, wage growth has not been high enough to outpace inflation: real wages have fallen by 0.2 per cent compared to last year. Britain has received a pay rise, but not high enough to compensate for rising prices. To quote Matt Hughes, a senior ONS statistician:
Employment and unemployment levels were both up on the quarter, with the employment rate returning to its joint highest ever. ‘Economically inactive’ people — those who are neither working nor looking for a job — fell by their largest amount in almost five and a half years, however. Total earnings growth continues to nudge upwards in cash terms. However, earnings are still failing to outpace inflation.
An increase in interest rates is likely to put further pressure on indebted households. Even more so as it coincides with the end of the five-year grace period since the launch of the 2013 Help-to-Buy scheme, which means that many new homeowners who come to the end of their five year fixed rate deals, will soon find themselves paying more for their mortgage, while also starting to pay interest on their Help-to-buy government loan.
Will wages grow fast enough in 2018 to outpace inflation (and despite Brexit, which is now only 12 months away)? We shall see.
Data, Reports and Analysis
- What is monetary policy, and how is it used to fine tune the economy?
- What is the effect of an increase in interest rates on aggregate demand?
- How optimistic (or pessimistic) are you about the UK’s economic outlook in 2018? Explain your reasoning.
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!
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)
Autumn Budget 2017 HM Treasury (22/11/17)
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2017 Office for Budget Responsibility (22/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 Institute for Fiscal Studies (23/11/17)
- What measures of productivity are there other than output per hour? Why is output per hour normally the preferred measure of productivity?
- What factors determine output per hour?
- Why have forecasts of productivity growth rates been revised downwards?
- What are the implications of lower productivity growth for government finances?
- What could cause an increase in output per hour? Would there be any negative effects from these causes?
- What policies could the government pursue to increase productivity? How feasible are these policies? Explain.
- Would it matter if the government increased borrowing substantially to fund a large programme of public investment?
The latest edition of the IMF’s Fiscal Monitor, ‘Tackling Inequality’ challenges conventional wisdom that policies to reduce inequality will also reduce economic growth.
While some inequality is inevitable in a market-based economic system, excessive inequality can erode social cohesion, lead to political polarization, and ultimately lower economic growth.
The IMF looks at three possible policy alternatives to reduce inequality without damaging economic growth
The first is a rise in personal income tax rates for top earners. Since top rates have been cut in most countries, with the OECD average falling from 62% to 35% over the past 30 years, the IMF maintains that there is considerable scope of raising top rates, with the optimum being around 44%. Evidence suggests that income tax elasticity is low at most countries’ current top rates, meaning that a rise in top income tax rates would only have a small disincentive effect on earnings.
An increased progressiveness of income tax should be backed by sufficient taxes on capital to prevent income being reclassified as capital. Different types of wealth tax, such as inheritance tax, could also be considered. Countries should also reduce the opportunities for tax evasion.
The second policy alternative is a universal basic income for all people. This could be achieved by various means, such as tax credits, child benefits and other cash benefits, or minimum wages plus benefits for the unemployed or non-employed.
The third is better access to health and education, both for their direct effect on reducing inequality and for improving productivity and hence people’s earning potential.
In all three cases, fiscal policy can help through a combination of taxes, benefits and public expenditure on social infrastructure and human capital.
But a major problem with using increased tax rates is international competition, especially with corporation tax rates. Countries are keen to attract international investment by having corporation tax rates lower than their rivals. But, of course, countries cannot all have a lower rate than each other. The attempt to do so simply leads to a general lowering of corporation tax rates (see chart in The Economist article) – to a race to the bottom. The Nash equilibrium rate of such a game is zero!
Raising Taxes on the Rich Won’t Necessarily Curb Growth, IMF Says Bloomberg, Ben Holland and Andrew Mayeda (11/10/17)
The Fiscal Monitor, Introduction IMF (October 2017)
Transcript of the Press Conference on the Release of the October 2017 Fiscal Monitor IMF (12/10/17)
Higher taxes can lower inequality without denting economic growth The Economist, Buttonwood (19/10/17)
Trump says the US has the highest corporate tax rate in the world. He’s wrong. Vox, Zeeshan Aleem (31/8/17)
Reducing inequality need not hurt growth Livemint, Ajit Ranade (18/10/17)
IMF: higher taxes for rich will cut inequality without hitting growth The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Heather Stewart (12/10/17)
IMF Fiscal Monitor
IMF Fiscal Monitor: Tackling Inequality – Landing Page IMF (October 2017)
Opening Remarks of Vitor Gaspar, Director of the Fiscal Affairs Department at a Press Conference Presenting the Fall 2017 Fiscal Monitor: Tackling Inequality IMF (11/10/17)
Fiscal Monitor, Tackling Inequality – Full Text IMF (October 2017)
- Referring to the October 2017 Fiscal Monitor, linked above, what arguments does the IMF use for suggesting that the optimal top rate of income tax is considerably higher than the current OECD average?
- What are the arguments for introducing a universal basic income? Should this depend on people’s circumstances, such as the number of their children, assets, such as savings or property, and housing costs?
- Find out the details of the UK government’s Universal Credit. Does this classify as a universal basic income?
- Why may governments reject the IMF’s policy recommendations to tackle inequality?
- In what sense can better access to health and education be seen as a means of reducing inequality? How is inequality being defined in this case?
- Find out what the UK Labour Party’s policy is on rates of income tax for top earners. Is this consistent with the IMF’s policy recommendations?
- What does the IMF report suggest about the shape of the Laffer curve?
- Explain what is meant by tax elasticity and how it relates to the Laffer curve?
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?
According to Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, the slow growth in global productivity is acting as a brake on the growth in potential income and is thus holding back the growth in living standards. In a recent speech in Washington she said that:
Over the past decade, there have been sharp slowdowns in measured output per worker and total factor productivity – which can be seen as a measure of innovation. In advanced economies, for example, productivity growth has dropped to 0.3 per cent, down from a pre-crisis average of about 1 per cent. This trend has also affected many emerging and developing countries, including China.
We estimate that, if total factor productivity growth had followed its pre-crisis trend, overall GDP in advanced economies would be about 5 percent higher today. That would be the equivalent of adding another Japan – and more – to the global economy.
So why has productivity growth slowed to well below pre-crisis rates? One reason is an ageing working population, with older workers acquiring new skills less quickly. A second is the slowdown in world trade and, with it, the competitive pressure for firms to invest in the latest technologies.
A third is the continuing effect of the financial crisis, with many highly indebted firms forced to make deep cuts in investment and many others being cautious about innovating. The crisis has dampened risk taking – a key component of innovation.
What is clear, said Lagarde, is that more innovation is needed to restore productivity growth. But markets alone cannot achieve this, as the benefits of invention and innovation are, to some extent, public goods. They have considerable positive externalities.
She thus called on governments to give high priority to stimulating productivity growth and unleashing entrepreneurial energy. There are several things governments can do. These include market-orientated supply-side policies, such as removing unnecessary barriers to competition, driving forward international free trade and cutting red tape. They also include direct intervention through greater investment in education and training, infrastructure and public-sector R&D. They also include giving subsidies and/or tax relief for private-sector R&D.
Banks too have a role in chanelling finance away from low-productivity firms and towards ‘young and vibrant companies’.
It is important to recognise, she concluded, that innovation and structural change can lead to some people losing out, with job losses, low wages and social deprivation. Support should be given to such people through better education, retraining and employment incentives.
IMF chief warns slowing productivity risks living standards drop Reuters, David Lawder (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks social turmoil, IMF warns Financial Times, Shawn Donnan (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks creating instability, warns IMF The Guardian, Katie Allen (3/4/17)
The Guardian view on productivity: Britain must solve the puzzle The Guardian (9/4/17)
Reinvigorating Productivity Growth IMF Speeches, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, IMF(3/4/17)
Gone with the Headwinds: Global Productivity IMF Staff Discussion Note, Gustavo Adler, Romain Duval, Davide Furceri, Sinem Kiliç Çelik, Ksenia Koloskova and Marcos Poplawski-Ribeiro (April 2017)
- What is the relationship between actual and potential economic growth?
- Distinguish between labour productivity and total factor productivity.
- Why has total factor productivity growth been considerably slower since the financial crisis than before?
- Is sustained productivity growth (a) a necessary and/or (b) a sufficient condition for a sustained growth in living standards?
- Give some examples of technological developments that could feed through into significant growth in productivity.
- What is the relationship between immigration and productivity growth?
- What policies would you advocate for increasing productivity? Explain why.