The UK is a productivity laggard. Compared to many developed countries over the recent past it has experienced weaker growth in output per worker and output per hour worked. This is detrimental to our longer-term well-being and to peoples’ living standards. An important contributory factor has been the weakness of growth in (non-financial) capital per worker. Recent ONS figures show that UK experienced a decline in capital per worker from 2012 to 2015, which was only ended in 2016.
Non-financial capital assets (also known as fixed assets) are defined as already-produced, durable goods or any non-financial asset used in the production of goods or services. This includes items such as dwellings, buildings, ICT, machinery and transport equipment.
Chart 1 shows the value of net capital assets in the UK since 1995. ‘Net’ figures account for the depreciation of assets and so reflect the market value of the capital stock. At the end of 2016 the net capital stock was estimated at £7.54 trillion (at 2015 prices) compared to £4.94 trillion (at 2015 prices) in 1995, an increase of 53 per cent or about 2.4 per cent per year.
However, as the chart shows, the rate of growth slowed markedly following the financial crisis of the late 2000s, averaging a mere 0.8 per cent per year since 2010. (Click here for a Powerpoint of the chart).
Capital intensity can be measured by the amount of capital per employee. Capital intensity is important because the growth in net capital per employee impacts on productivity. Its growth has an impact on the current effectiveness of capital and labour in production and on the future growth in potential output per employee.
Chart 2 shows that, following the financial crisis, falling employment levels temporarily boosted the growth in net capital per employee. Then, as employment levels recovered and began growing again, the weakness in investment meant that net capital per employee began to fall.
In 2016, as employment growth slowed, the now stronger flows of investment meant that, for the first time since 2011, net capital per employee was finally rising again. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
The persistent weakness experienced by UK in the growth of capital intensity in the 2010s is a drag on productivity and on supply-side growth. The weakness of UK productivity growth looks like remaining for some time one of the biggest economic challenges facing policymakers. Productivity needs its capital.
UK business investment on ice until more Brexit progress, warns BCC The Guardian, Richard Partington (11/12/17)
Budget 2017: Can Digital Plug The UK’s Productivity Gap? Hufttington Post, William Newton (27/11/17)
UK productivity estimates must be ‘significantly’ lowered, admits OBR The Guardian, Richard Partington and Phillip Inman (13/12/17)
UK productivity sees further fall BBC News (6/10/17)
Capital stocks, consumption of fixed capital in the UK: 2017 ONS
- How might we measure productivity?
- Compose a list of items that are examples of non-financial (or fixed) capital.
- How can the growth of non-financial (or fixed) capital affect productivity?
- What is meant by capital intensity? Why is this concept important for long-term growth?
- What factors might affect the rate of capital accumulation? Are there interventions that governments can make to impact on the rate of capital accumulation?
- Discuss the possible reasons why the UK has become a productivity laggard.
In Gloomy prospects for UK consumer spending in 2012? we talked about how consumer spending can be affected by the financial position of households. Figures from United Kingdom National Accounts – Blue Book 2011 (see Tables 6.1.9 and 10.10) give the latest complete set of balance sheets for the UK household sector. The figures are for 2010 and in this blog we provide a brief overview of what these figures reveal.
In effect, there are two main balance sheets of interest for households (and non-profit institutions serving households (NPISHs), i.e. charities and voluntary organisations). The first details their net financial wealth and the second their physical wealth, also known as their non-financial wealth. We begin with net financial wealth. This is found by subtracting financial liabilities (debt) from financial assets. The household sector in 2010 had financial liabilities of £1.54 trillion equivalent to 1.6 times its disposable income for the year or 1.1 times the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Of these liabilities, £1.2 trillion was mortgage debt, i.e. loans secured against property. On the other hand, the sector had financial assets of £4.3 trillion equivalent to 4.4 times its disposable income in 2010 or 3 times GDP. Of these financial assets, the value in pension funds and life assurance was £2.27 trillion.
The net financial wealth of households and NPISHs in 2010 was £2.8 trillion, 2.9 times the sector’s disposable income for the year or 1.9 times GDP. To this we need to add physical wealth of £4.9 trillion, a massive 5 times the sector’s disposable income or 3.3 times the nation’s GDP. The majority of this is residential buildings the value of which were put at £4 billion for 2010. This demonstrates the significance of housing to the UK household sector balance sheet.
If we now add physical wealth to net financial wealth, we find that in 2010 the household and NPISH sector had a net worth of £7.7 trillion. To put this in context, it is equivalent to 7.8 times the disposable income it earned in 2010 and 5.3 times the UK’s Gross Domestic Product. While these are enormous figures it is worth noting that in 2007 the sector’s net worth was £7.4 trillion, equivalent to 8.5 times annual disposable income.
A trawl through the figures clearly shows the impact of the financial crisis on the sector’s net worth. From £7.4 trillion in 2007, net worth fell in 2008 to £6.6 trillion or 7.2 times annual disposable income. However, 2009 and 2010 did see the households’ net worth increase again – including relative to its disposable income. This has been the result of its net financial wealth increasing. Net financial wealth in 2010 was 9.8 per cent higher than in 2007. However, the depressed housing market has continued to adversely impact on the sector’s net worth. Physical wealth in 2010 was 0.7 per cent lower than in 2007.
Of course, while these empirical observations are undoubtedly interesting, the key question for debate is how these patterns affect household behaviour. Of particular importance, is how changes in both the household sector’s total net worth and the components making up the total will translate into changes in consumer spending. Economists are increasingly recognising that in understanding consumer spending patterns we need to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of the balance sheets on consumer spending. It is quite likely that many retailers when forming their plans for the year ahead will be analysing the potential impact of household finances on spending behaviour. Developing strategies to respond to the state of the household balance sheets may be crucial to their success.
United Kingdom National Accounts – Blue Book 2011 (datasets) Office for National Statistics (see Tables 6.1.9 and 10.10)
Debt levels head towards £30,000 for every adult Mirror, Tricia Phillips (2/12/11)
40% risk getting further in debt this Christmas Independent, Simon Read (3/12/11)
Uk’s debts ‘biggest in the world’ BBC News, Robert Peston (21/11/11) (This article looks at debt across all sectors, including corporate and government debt too)
Drowning in debt: Warning over 4,000% interest rates as 3.5m people say they will be forced to take out ‘payday’ loans in the next 6 months Daily Mail, Emily Allen (7/12/11)
UK households wealthier than Germany’s says UBS Telegraph, Jamie Dunkley (9/12/11)
- In the context of the household balance sheets, explain the difference between the concepts of stocks and flows.
- Illustrate with examples your understanding of what is meant by secured and unsecured debt. What factors are likely to affect the growth from one period to another in the stocks of secured and unsecured debt outstanding?
- Draw up a list of possible factors that could affect the value of the household sector’s net financial wealth. Now repeat the exercise for non-financial wealth.
- Draw up a list of ways in which you think changes to the values of items on the household balance sheets could affect consumer spending. After drawing up this list consider their significance in 2012.
- What sort of items would be included in the balance sheets of firms and of government?