‘Employment has been strong, but productivity and real wages have been flat.’ This is one of the key observations in a new OECD report on the state of the UK economy. If real incomes for the majority of people are to be raised, then labour productivity must rise.
For many years, the UK has had a lower productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) than most other developed countries, with the exception of Japan. But from 1980 to the mid 2000s, the gap was gradually narrowing. Since then, however, the gap has been widening again. This is illustrated in Chart 1, which shows countries’ productivity relative to the UK’s (with the UK set at 100). (Click here for a PowerPoint.)
Compared with the UK, GDP per hour worked in 2013 (the latest data available) was 28% higher in France, 29% higher in Germany and 30% higher in the USA. What is more, GDP per hour worked and GDP per capita in the UK fell by 3.8% and 6.1% respectively after the financial crisis of 2007/8 (see the green and grey lines in Chart 2). And while both indicators began rising after 2009, they were still both below their 2007 levels in 2013. Average real wages also fell after 2007 but, unlike the other two indicators, kept on falling and by 2013 were 4% below their 2007 levels, as the red line in Chart 2 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.)
Although productivity and even real wages are rising again, the rate of increase is slow. If productivity is to rise, there must be investment. This could be in physical capital, human capital or, preferably, both. But for many years the UK has had a lower rate of investment than other countries, as Chart 3 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.) This chart measures investment in fixed capital as a percentage of GDP.
So how can investment be encouraged? Faster growth will encourage greater investment through the accelerator effect, but such an effect could well be short-lived as firms seek to re-equip but may be cautious about committing to increasing capacity. What is crucial here is maintaining high degrees of business confidence over an extended period of time.
More fundamentally, there are structural problems that need tackling. One is the poor state of infrastructure. This is a problem not just in the UK, but in many developed countries, which cut back on public and private investment in transport, communications and energy infrastructure in an attempt to reduce government deficits after the financial crisis. Another is the low level of skills of many workers. Greater investment in training and apprenticeships would help here.
Then there is the question of access to finance. Although interest rates are very low, banks are cautious about granting long-term loans to business. Since the financial crisis banks have become much more risk averse and long-term loans, by their nature, are relatively risky. Government initiatives to provide finance to private companies may help here. For example the government has just announced a Help to Grow scheme which will provide support for 500 small firms each year through the new British Business Bank, which will provide investment loans and also grants on a match funding basis for new investment.
OECD: UK must fix productivity Economia, Oliver Griffin (25/2/15)
The UK’s productivity puzzle BBC News, Lina Yueh (24/2/15)
OECD warns UK must fix productivity problem to raise living standards The Guardian, Katie Allen (24/2/15)
Britain must boost productivity to complete post-crisis recovery, says OECD International Business Times, Ian Silvera (24/2/15)
OECD urges UK to loosen immigration controls on skilled workers Financial Times, Emily Cadman and Helen Warrell (24/2/15)
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Overview OECD (February 2015)
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Full report OECD (February 2015)
- In what ways can productivity be measured? What are the relative merits of using the different measures?
- Why has the UK’s productivity lagged behind other industrialised countries?
- What is the relationship between income inequality and labour productivity?
- Why has UK investment been lower than in other industrialised countries?
- What are zombie firms? How does the problem of zombie firms in the UK compare with that in other countries? Explain the differences.
- What policies can be pursued to increased labour productivity?
- What difficulties are there in introducing effective policies to tackle low productivity?
- Should immigration controls be lifted to tackle the problem of a shortage of skilled workers?
Politicians often make use of economic statistics to promote their point of view. A good example is a claim made by the UK Prime Minister on 23 January 2014. According to the latest statistics, he said, most British workers have seen their take-home pay rise in real terms. The Labour party countered this by arguing that incomes are not keeping up with prices.
So who is right? Studying economics and being familiar with analysing economic data should help you answer this question. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on just how you define the issue and what datasets you use.
The Prime Minister was referring to National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE). This shows that in April 2013 median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £517.5, up 2.25% from £506.10 in 2012, and mean gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £620.30, up 2.06% from £607.80 in 2012 (see Table 1.1a in the dataset). CPI inflation over this period was 2.4%, representing a real fall in median gross weekly earnings of 0.15% and mean gross weekly earnings of 0.34%.
But when adjustments are made for increases in personal income tax allowances, then, according to the government, except for the richest 10% of the working population, people had an average increase in real take-home pay of 1.1%.
But does this paint the complete picture? Critics of the government’s claim that people are ‘better off’, make the following points.
First, the ASHE dataset is for the year ending April 2013. The ONS publishes other datasets that show that real wages have fallen faster since then. The Earnings and Working Hours datasets, published monthly, currently go up to November 2013. The chart shows real wages from January 2005 to November 2013 (with CPI = 100 in December 2013). You can see that the downward trend resumed after mid 2013. In the year to November 2013, nominal average weekly earnings rose by 0.9%, while CPI inflation was 2.1%. Thus real weekly earnings fell by 1.2% over the period (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
Second, there is the question of whether CPI or RPI inflation should be used in calculating real wages. RPI inflation was 2.9% (compared to CPI inflation of 2.4%) in the year to April 2013. The chart shows weekly earnings adjusted for both CPI and RPI.
Third, if, instead of looking at gross real wages, the effect of income tax and national insurance changes are taken into account, then benefit changes ought also to be taken into account. Some benefits, such as tax credits and child benefit were cut in the year to April 2013.
Fourth, looking at just one year (and not even the latest 12 months) gives a very partial picture. It is better to look at a longer period and see what the trends are. The chart shows the period from 2005. Real wages (CPI adjusted) are 8.0% lower than at the peak (at the beginning of 2009) and 5.0% lower than at the time of the election in 2010. The differences are even greater if RPI-adjusted wages are used.
But even if the claim that real incomes are rising is open to a number of objections, it may be that as the recovery begins to gather pace, real incomes will indeed begin to rise. But to assess whether this is so will require a careful analysis of the statistics when they become available.
UK pay rising in real terms, says coalition BBC News (24/1/14)
Are we really any better off than we were? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/1/14)
Government take-home pay figures ‘perfectly sensible’ BBC Today Programme, Paul Johnson (24/1/14)
Take-Home Pay ‘Rising Faster Than Prices’ Sky News, Darren McCaffrey (25/1/14)
David Cameron hails the start of ‘recovery for all’ The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (23/1/14)
Is take-home pay improving? The answer is anything but simple The Guardian, Phillip Inman and Katie Allen (24/1/14)
Cameron’s ‘good news’ about rising incomes is misleading says Labour The Guardian, Rowena Mason (24/1/14)
The Tories’ claim that living standards have risen is nonsense on stilts New Statesman, George Eaton (24/1/14)
FactCheck: Conservative claims on rising living standards Channel 4 News, Patrick Worrall (25/1/14)
Living standards squeeze continues in UK, says IFS BBC News (31/1/14)
Richest have seen biggest cash income squeeze but poorest have faced higher inflation IFS Press Release (31/1/14)
Average Weekly Earnings dataset ONS (22/1/14)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results ONS (12/12/13)
Consumer Price Inflation, December 2013 ONS (14/1/14)
Inequality and Poverty Spreadsheet Institute for Fiscal Studies
An Examination of Falling Real Wages, 2010 to 2013 ONS (31/1/14)
- Why are mean weekly earnings higher than median weekly earnings?
- Explain the difference between RPI and CPI. Which is the more appropriate index for determining changes in real incomes?
- Find out what benefit changes have taken place over the past two years and how they have affected household incomes.
- How have gross weekly earnings changed for the different income groups? (The ASHE gives figures for decile groups.)
- Which is better for assessing changes in incomes: weekly earnings or hourly earnings?
- How would you define a change in living standards? What data would you need to be able to assess whether living standards have increased or decreased?
First the good news. Employment is rising and unemployment is falling. Both claimant count rates and Labour Force Survey rates are down. Compared with a year ago, employment is up 279,092 to 29,869,489; LFS unemployment is down from 7.87% to 7.69%; and the claimant count rate is down from 4.7% to 4.0%.
Now the bad news. Even though more people are in employment, real wages have fallen. In other words, nominal wages have risen less fast than prices. Since 2009, real wages have fallen by 7.6% and have continued to fall throughout this period. The first chart illustrates this. It shows average weekly wage rates in 2005 prices. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The fall in real wages is an average for the whole country. Many people, especially those on low incomes, have seen their real wages fall much faster than the average. For many there is a real ‘cost of living’ crisis.
But why have real wages fallen despite the rise in employment? The answer is that output per hour worked has declined. This is illustrated in the second chart, which compares UK output per worker with that of other G7 countries. UK productivity has fallen both absolutely and relative to other G7 countries, most of which have had higher rates of investment.
The falling productivity in the UK requires more people to be employed to produce the same level of output. Part of what seems to be happening is that many employers have been prepared to keep workers on in return for lower real wages, even if demand from their customers is falling. And many workers have been prepared to accept real wage cuts in return for keeping their jobs.
Another part of the explanation is that the jobs that have been created have been largely in low-skilled, low-wage sectors of the economy, such as retailing and other parts of the service sector.
But falling productivity is only part of the reason for falling real wages. The other part is rising prices. A number of factors have contributed to this. These include a depreciation of the exchange rate back in 2008, the effects of which took some time to filter through into higher prices in the shops; a large rise in various commodity prices; and a rise in VAT and various other administered prices.
So what is the answer to falling real wages? The articles below consider the problem and some of the possible policy alternatives.
Inflation, unemployment and UK ‘misery’ BBC News, Linda Yueh (16/10/13)
Employment is growing, but so are the wage slaves The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/10/13)
Living standards – going down and, er, up BBC News, Nick Robinson (26/7/13)
Revealed: The cost of living is rising faster in the UK than anywhere in Europe, with soaring food and energy bills blamed Mail Online, Matt Chorley (16/10/13)
Cutting prices to raise living standards is just a waste of energy The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (6/10/13)
Downturn sees average real wages collapse to a record low Independent, Ben Chu (17/10/13)
Why living standards and public finances matter Financial Times, Gavin Kelly (29/9/13)
Social Mobility Tsar Alan Milburn Calls on Government to Boost Wages to End UK Child Poverty International Business Times, Ian Silvera (17/10/13)
Do incorrect employment growth figures explain low UK productivity? The Guardian, Katie Allen (23/10/13)
Unemployment data ONS
Average Weekly Earnings dataset ONS
Consumer Prices Index ONS
International Comparison of Productivity ONS
- How are real wages measured?
- Why have real wage rates fallen in the UK since 2009?
- What factors should be included when measuring living standards?
- Why has employment risen and unemployment fallen over the past two years?
- What factors could lead to a rise in real wages in the future?
- What government policies could be adopted to raise real wages?
- Assess these policies in terms of their likely short-term success and long-term sustainability.
In a carefully argued article in the New Statesman, the UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, considers the slow recovery in the economy and whether additional measures should be adopted. He sums up the current state of the economy as follows:
The British economy is still operating at levels around or below those before the 2008 financial crisis and roughly 15 per cent below an albeit unsustainable pre-crisis trend. There was next to no growth during 2012 and the prospect for 2013 is of very modest recovery.
Unsurprisingly there is vigorous debate as to what has gone wrong. And also what has gone right; unemployment has fallen as a result of a million (net) new jobs in the private sector and there is vigorous growth of new enterprises. Optimistic official growth forecasts and prophets of mass unemployment have both been confounded.
He argues that supply-side policies involving “a major and sustained commitment to skills, innovation and infrastructure investment” are essential if more rapid long-term growth is to be achieved. This is relatively uncontroversial.
But he also considers the claim that austerity has kept the economy from recovering and whether policies to tackle the negative output gap should be adopted, even if this means a short-term increase in government borrowing.
But crude Keynesian policies of expanding aggregate demand are both difficult to implement and may not take into account the particular circumstance of the current extended recession – or depression – in the UK and in many eurozone countries. World aggregate demand, however, is not deficient. In fact it is expanding quite rapidly, and with the sterling exchange rate index some 20% lower than before the financial crisis, this should give plenty of opportunity for UK exporters.
Yet expanding UK aggregate demand is proving difficult to achieve. Consumers, worried about falling real wages and large debts accumulated in the years of expansion, are reluctant to increase consumption and take on more debts, despite low interest rates. In the light of dampened consumer demand, firms are reluctant to invest. This makes monetary policy particularly ineffective, especially when banks have become more risk averse and wish to hold higher reserves, and indeed are under pressure to do so.
So what can be done? He argues that there is “some scope for more demand to boost output, particularly if the stimulus is targeted on supply bottlenecks such as infrastructure and skills.” In other words, he advocates policies that will simultaneously increase both aggregate demand and aggregate supply. Monetary policy, involving negative real interest rates and quantitative easing, has helped to prevent a larger fall in real aggregate demand and a deeper dive into recession, but the dampened demand for money and the desire by banks to build their reserves has meant a massive fall in the money multiplier. Perhaps monetary policy needs to be more aggressive still (see the blog post, Doves from above), but this may not be sufficient.
Which brings Dr Cable to the political dynamite! He advocates an increase in public investment on infrastructure (schools and colleges, hospitals, road and rail projects and housing, and considers whether this should be financed, not by switching government expenditure away from current spending, but by borrowing more.
Such a strategy does not undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit, and may assist it by reviving growth. It may complicate the secondary objective of reducing government debt relative to GDP because it entails more state borrowing; but in a weak economy, more public investment increases the numerator and the denominator.
He raises the question of whether the balance of risks has changed: away from the risk of increased short-term borrowing causing a collapse of confidence to the risk of lack of growth causing a deterioration in public finances and this causing a fall in confidence. As we saw in the blog post Moody Blues, the lack of growth has already caused one ratings agency (Moody’s) to downgrade the UK’s credit rating. The other two major agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch may well follow suit.
The day after Dr Cable’s article was published, David Cameron gave a speech saying that the government would stick to its plan of deficit reduction. Not surprisingly commentators interpreted this as a split in the Coalition. Carefully argued economics from Dr Cable it might have been, but political analysts have seen it as a hand grenade, as you will see from some of the articles below.
When the facts change, should I change my mind? New Statesman, Vince Cable (6/3/13)
Keynes would be on our side New Statesman, Vince Cable (12/1/11)
Exclusive: Vince Cable calls on Osborne to change direction New Statesman, George Eaton (67/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News (7/3/13)
Vince Cable makes direct challenge to Cameron over economic programme The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (7/3/13)
Vince Cable Says George Osborne Must Change Course And Borrow More To Revive Growth Huffington Post, Ned Simons (6/3/13)
David Cameron and Vince Cable at war over route to recovery Independent, Andrew Grice (6/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News, James Landale (6/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
Clegg Backs Cable Over Controversial Economy Comments LBC Radio, Nick Clegg (7/3/13)
It’s plain what George Osborne needs to do – so just get on and do it The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (6/3/13)
Vince Cable’s plan B: a “matter of judgement” BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/3/13)
George Osborne needs to turn on the spending taps The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/3/13)
- Why has monetary policy proved ineffective in achieving a rapid recovery from recession?
- Distinguish between discretionary fiscal policy and automatic fiscal stabilisers.
- Why has the existence of automatic fiscal stabilisers meant that the public-sector deficit has been difficult to bring down?
- In what ways has the balance of risks in using discretionary fiscal policy changed over the past three years?
- In what ways is the depression of the late 2000s/early 2010s (a) similar to and (b) different from the Great Depression of the early 1930s?
- In what ways is the structure of public-sector debt in the UK different from that in many countries in the eurozone? Why does this give the government more scope for expansionary fiscal policy?
- Why does the Office of Budget Responsibility’s estimates of the tax and government expenditure multipliers suggest that “if fiscal policy is to work in a Keynesian manner, it needs to be targeted carefully, concentrating on capital projects”?
- Why did Keynes argue that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero bound (to use Dr Cable’s terminology)? Are we currently at the zero bound? If so what can be done?
- Has fiscal tightening more than offset loose monetary policy?
UK Unemployment figures for the July to September period have just been published. Perhaps surprisingly, the rate has fallen to 7.8% from 8.0% in the previous 3-month period. What is more, there have been similar 0.2 percentage-point falls in each of the two 3-month periods prior to that (see chart below).
This would normally suggest that the economy has been growing strongly and faster than the growth in potential output. But, despite positive economic growth in quarter 3 (see A positive turn of events?), the economy has been experiencing a prolonged period of low or negative growth.
So what is the explanation for the fall in unemployment? (For a PowerPoint of the chart, click here)
One reason is a greater flexibility in the labour market than in previous recessions. People are more willing to accept below inflation wage increases, or even nominal wage cuts, in return for greater job security. Others are prepared to reduce their hours.
The other reason is a fall in productivity (i.e. output per hour worked). One explanation is that people are not working so hard because, with a lack of demand, there is less pressure on them to be productive; a similar explanation is that firms are ‘hoarding’ labour in the hope that the market will pick up again.
Another explanation is that employment growth has often occurred in the low productivity industries, such as labour-intensive service industries; another is that when people leave their jobs they are replace by less productive workers on lower wages; another is that workers are making do with ageing equipment, whose productivity is falling, because firms cannot afford to invest in new equipment. An range of possible explanations is given on page 33 of the Bank of England’s November 2012 Inflation Report.
But with many predicting that growth will be negative again in 2012 quarter 4, the fall in unemployment may not continue. Britain may join many other countries in Europe and experience rising unemployment as well as falling output.
Government hails fall in jobless total The Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (14/11/12)
UK unemployment figures: analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (14/11/12)
Jobless claims rise as Olympics effect wanes The Telegraph, Rachel Cooper and Louisa Peacock (14/11/12)
UK unemployment falls to 2.51 million, ONS says BBC News (14/11/12)
Unemployment continuing to fall BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (14/11/12)
Britain’s recession: Harsh but fair? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (17/10/12)
The UK productivity puzzle (cont’d) BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (20/9/12)
UK jobs: The plot thickens BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (15/8/12)
Unemployment: the key UK data and benefit claimants for every constituency Guardian Data Blog
Labour Market Statistics, November 2012 ONS
Video Summary: Latest on the Labour Market, November 2012 ONS
Labour Productivity, Q2 2012 ONS
International Comparisons of Productivity, First estimates for 2011 ONS
- What possible explanation are there for the latest fall in unemployment?
- What has been happening to employment, both full time and part time?
- What are the different ways of measuring productivity? Why will they be affected differently by a fall in the average number of hours worked?
- Why might it be in firms’ interests to maintain the level of their workforce despite falling sales?
- Assume that there has been a fall in aggregate demand. Compare the resulting effect on consumption of (a) a fall in wages rates; (b) a rise in unemployment. How might the design of the benefit system affect the answer?