Category: Economics for Business: 8e Ch 31

A lack of productivity growth has been a major problem for the UK economy over the past decade (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Is it possible that the new decade may see a pick-up in the growth in output per hour worked?

One possible solution to low productivity growth is to reduce working hours and even to move to a four-day week, but not to reduce total pay. If people work fewer hours, they may well be more productive in the hours they do work. In fact, not only may output per hour increase, but so too may output per worker, despite fewer hours being worked. What is more, the quality of output may increase with people being less tired and more motivated.

Several companies have experimented with a four-day week, including Microsoft in Japan, which employees 2300 workers. It found that, despite a 20% reduction in hours worked, output per hour worked increased by 40%, with total output thereby increasing. Workers were generally happier and more motivated and asked for fewer days off.

And it is not just a question of output: fewer hours can result in lower costs. The effect on costs will depend on the nature of new work patterns, including whether everyone has the same extra day off.

But a four-day week is only one way of cutting working hours for full-time employees. Another is to reduce the length of the working day. The argument is that people may work more efficiently if the standard working day is cut from eight to, say, five hours. As the first Thrive Global article article (linked below) states:

Just because you’re at your desk for eight hours doesn’t mean you’re being productive. Even the best employees probably only accomplish two to three hours of actual work. The five-hour day is about managing human energy more efficiently by working in bursts over a shorter period.

If people have more leisure time, this could provide a boost to the leisure and other industries. According to a Henley Business School study:

An extra day off could have a knock-on effect for the wider society. We found 54% of employees said they would spend their day shopping, meaning a potential boost for the high street, 43% would go to the cinema or theatre and 39% would eat out at restaurants.

What is more, many people would be likely to use the extra time productively, undertaking training, volunteering or other socially useful activities. Also family life is likely to improve, with people spending less time at work and commuting and having more time for their partners, children, other relatives and friends. In addition, people’s physical and mental health is likely to improve as they achieve a better work-life balance.

So, should firms be encouraged to reduce hours for full-time workers with no loss of pay? Many firms may need no encouragement at all if they can see from the example of others that it is in their interests. But many firms may find it difficult, especially if their suppliers and/or customers are sticking with ‘normal’ working hours and want to do business during those hours. But, over time, as more firms move in this direction, so it will become increasingly in the interests of others to follow suit.

In the meantime, should the government introduce incentives (such as tax breaks) or regulations to limit the working week? Indeed, it was part of the Labour manifesto for the December 2019 election that the country should, over time, move to a four-day week. Although this was a long-term goal, it would probably have involved the use of some incentives to encourage employers to move in that direction or the gradual introduction of limits on the number of hours or days per week that people could work in a particular job. It is unlikely that the new Conservative government will introduce any specific measures, but would probably not want to discourage firms from reducing working hours, especially if it is accompanied by increased output per worker.

But despite the gains, there are some problems with reduced working hours. Many small businesses, such as shops, restaurants and firms offering technical support, may not have the flexibility to offer reduced hours, or may find it hard to increase productivity when there is a specific amount of work that needs doing, such as serving customers.

Another problem concerns businesses where the output of individuals is not easy to measure because they are part of a team. Reducing hours or the working week may not make such people work harder if they can ‘get way with it’. Not everyone is likely to be motivated by fewer hours to work harder.

Then there is the problem if reduced hours don’t work in boosting productivity. It may then be very difficult to reintroduce longer hours.

But, despite these problems, there are many firms where substantial gains in productivity could be made by restructuring work in a way that reduces hours worked. We may see more and more examples as the decade progresses.

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Questions

  1. Distinguish between different ways of measuring labour productivity.
  2. Give some examples (from the linked references) of employers which have tried introducing a four-day week or reduced hours for full-time workers. What has been the outcome in each case?
  3. In what ways may reducing working hours reduce a firm’s total costs?
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the government imposing (at some point in the future) a maximum working week or a four-day week?
  5. What types of firm might struggle in introducing a four-day week or a substantially reduced number of hours for full-time employees?
  6. What external benefits and costs might arise from a shorter working week?

It’s been a while since I last blogged about labour markets and, in particular, about the effect of automation on wages and employment. My most recent post on this topic was on the 14th of April 2018 and it was mostly a reflection on some interesting findings that had been reported by Acemoglu et al (2017). More specifically, Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) developed a theoretical framework to evaluate the effect of AI on employment and wages. They concluded that the effect was negative and potentially sizeable (for a more detailed discussion see my blog).

Using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, we show that robots may reduce employment and wages … According to our estimates, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 percent.

Since then, I have seen a constant stream of news on my news feed about the development of ever more advanced industrial robots and artificial intelligence. And this was not because of some spooky coincidence (or worse). It has been merely a reflection of the speed at which technology has been progressing in this field.

There are now robots that can run, jump, hold conversations with humans, do gymnastics (and even sweat for it!) and more. It is really impressive how fast change has been happening recently in this field – and, unsurprisingly, it has stimulated the interest of labour economists!

A paper that has recently come to my attention on this subject is by Graetz and Michaels (2018). The authors put together a panel dataset on robot adoption within seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007 and use advanced econometric techniques to evaluate the effect of these technologies on employment and productivity growth. Their analysis focuses exclusively on developed economies (due to data limitations, as they explain) – but their results are nevertheless intriguing:

We study here for the first time the relationship between industrial robots and economic outcomes across much of the developed world. Using a panel of industries in seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007, we find that increased use of industrial robots is associated with increases in labor productivity. We find that the contribution of increased use of robots to productivity growth is substantial and calculate using conservative estimates that it comes to 0.36 percentage points, accounting for 15% of the aggregate economy-wide productivity growth.
 
The pattern that we document is robust to including various controls for country trends and changes in the composition of labor and other capital inputs. We also find that robot densification is associated with increases in both total factor productivity and wages, and reductions in output prices. We find no significant relationship between the increased use of industrial robots and overall employment, although we find that robots may be reducing the employment of low-skilled workers.

This is very positive news for most – except, of course, for low-skilled workers. Indeed, like Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) and many others, this study shows that the effect of automation on employment and labour market outcomes is unlikely to be uniform across all types of workers. Low-skilled workers are found again to be likely to lose out and be significantly displaced by these technologies.

And if you are wondering which sectors are likely to be disrupted most/first by automation, the rankings developed by McKinsey and Company (see chart below) would give you an idea of where the disruption is likely to start. Unsurprisingly, the sectors that seem to be the most vulnerable, are the ones that use the highest share of low-skilled labour.

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Questions

  1. “The effect of automation on wages and employment is likely to be positive overall”. Discuss.
  2. Using examples and anecdotal evidence, do you agree with these findings?
  3. Using Google Scholar, put together a list of 5 recent (i.e. 2015 or later) articles and working papers on labour markets and automation. Compare and discuss their findings.

How would your life be without the internet? For many of you, this is a question that may be difficult to answer – as the internet has probably been an integral part of your life, probably since a very young age. We use internet infrastructure (broadband, 4G, 5G) to communicate, to shop, to educate ourselves, to keep in touch with each other, to buy and sell goods and services. We use it to seek and find new information, to learn how to cook, to download music, to watch movies. We also use the internet to make fast payments, transfer money between accounts, manage our ISA or our pension fund, set up direct debits and pay our credit-card bills.

I could spend hours writing about all the things that we do over the internet these days, and I would probably never manage to come up with a complete list. Just think about how many hours you spend online every day. Most likely, much of your waking time is spent using internet-based services one way or another (including apps on your phone, streaming on your phone, tablet or your smart TV and similar). If your access to the internet was disrupted, you would certainly feel the difference. What if you just couldn’t afford to have computer or internet access? What effect would that have on your education, your ability to find a job, and your income?

Martin Jenkins, a former homeless man, now entrepreneur, thinks that the magnitude of this effect is rather significant. In fact, he is so convinced about the importance of bringing the internet to poorer households, that he recently founded a company, Neptune, offering low-income households in the Bronx district of New York free access to online education, healthcare and finance portals. His venture was mentioned in a recent (and very interesting) BBC article – a link to which can be found at the end of this blog. But is internet connectivity really that important when it comes to economic and labour market outcomes? And is there a systematic link between economic growth and internet penetration rates?

These are all questions that have been the subject of intensive debate over the last few years, in the context of both developed and developing economies. Indeed, the ‘digital divide’ as it is known (the economic gap between the internet haves and have nots) is not something that concerns only developing countries. According to a recent policy brief published by the New York City Comptroller:

More than one-third (34 percent) of households in the Bronx lack broadband at home, compared to 30 percent in Brooklyn, 26 percent in Queens, 22 percent in Staten Island, and 21 percent in Manhattan.

The report goes on to present data on the percentage of households with internet connection at home by NYC district, and it does not take advanced econometric skills for one to notice that there is a clear link between median district income and broadband access. Wealthier districts (e.g. Manhattan Community District 1 & 2 – Battery Park City, Greenwich Village & Soho PUMA), tend to have a significantly higher share of households with broadband access, than less affluent ones (e.g. NYC-Brooklyn Community District 13 – Brighton Beach & Coney Island PUMA) – 88% of total households compared with 58%.

But, do these large variations in internet connectivity matter? The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, there are several studies that find a clear, strong link between internet penetration and economic growth. Czernich et al (2011), for instance, using data on OECD countries over the period 1996–2007, find that “a 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration raised annual per capita growth by 0.9–1.5 percentage points”.

Another study by Koutroumpis (2018) examined the effect of rolling out broadband in the UK.

For the UK, the speed increase contributed 1.71% to GDP in total and 0.12% annually. Combining the effect of the adoption and speed changes increased UK GDP by 6.99% cumulatively and 0.49% annually on average”. (pp.10–11)

The evidence is less clear, however, when one tries to estimate the benefits between different types of workers – low and high skilled. In a recent paper, Atasoy (2013) finds that:

gaining access to broadband services in a county is associated with approximately a 1.8 percentage point increase in the employment rate, with larger effects in rural and isolated areas.

But then he adds:

most of the employment gains result from existing firms increasing the scale of their labor demand and from growth in the labor force. These results are consistent with a theoretical model in which broadband technology is complementary to skilled workers, with larger effects among college-educated workers and in industries and occupations that employ more college-educated workers.

Similarly, Forman et al (2009) analyse the effect of business use of advanced internet technology and local variation in US wage growth, over the period 1995–2000. Their findings show that:

Advanced internet technology is associated with larger wage growth in places that were already well off. These are places with highly educated and large urban populations, and concentration of IT-intensive industry. Overall, advanced internet explains over half of the difference in wage growth between these counties and all others.

How important then is internet access as a determinant of growth and economic activity and what role does it have in bridging economic disparities between communities? The answer to this question is most likely ‘very important’ – but less straightforward than one might have assumed.

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Questions

  1. Is there a link between economic growth and internet access? Discuss, using examples.
  2. Explain the arguments for and against government intervention to subsidise internet access of poorer households.
  3. How important is the internet to you and your day to day life? Take a day offline (yes, really – a whole day). Then come back and write about it.

One of the announcements in the recent UK Budget was the ending of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), including its revised form, PF2. PFI was introduced by the Conservative government in 1992. Subsequently, it was to become central to the Labour government’s ‘Third-way’ approach of using the private sector to deliver public projects and services.

PFI involves a public–private partnership (PPP). The private sector builds and/or runs public projects, such as new schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, student accommodation, and so on. The public sector, in the form of government departments, NHS foundation trusts, local authorities, etc., then pays the private sector company a rent for the infrastructure or pays the company to provide services. The benefit of PFI is that it allows private-sector capital to be used for new projects and thus reduces the need for government to borrow; the disadvantage is that it commits the public-sector body to payments over the long-term to the company involved.

As the chart shows, PFI became an important means of funding public service provision during the 2000s. In the 10-year period up to financial year 2007/08, more than 50 new projects were being signed each year.

As the number of projects grew and with them the long-term financial commitments of the public sector, so criticisms mounted. These included:

  • Quality and cost. It was claimed that PFI projects were resulting in poorer quality of provision and that cost control was often poor, resulting in a higher burden for the taxpayer in the long term.
  • Credit availability. PFI projects are typically dependent on the private partner using debt finance to acquire the necessary funds. Therefore, credit conditions affect the ability of PFI to fund the delivery of public services. With the credit crunch of 2008/9, many firms operating PFI projects found it difficult to raise finance.
  • The financial health of the private partner. What happens if the private company runs into financial difficulties. In 2005, the engineering company Jarvis only just managed to avoid bankruptcy by securing refinancing on all 14 of its PFI deals.

PF2

Recognising these problems, in 2011 the government set up a review of PFI. The result was a revised form of PFI, known as ‘PF2’. PF2 projects involved tighter financial control, with the government acting as a minority co-investor; more robust tendering processes, with bidders required to develop a long-term financing solution, where bank debt does not form the majority of the financing of the project; the removal of cleaning, catering and other ‘soft services’.

Despite the government’s intention that PPPs remain an important plank of its funding of public services, the number of new PFI/PF2 projects has nonetheless declined sharply during the 2010s as the chart shows. Of the 715 PPP projects as of 31 March 2017, 631 had been signed before May 2010. Indeed, in 2016/17 only 1 new project was signed.

The collapse of Carillion

Concerns over PPPs remained despite the reforms under PF2. These were brought dramatically into focus with the collapse of Carillion plc (see the blog, Outsourcing, PFI and the demise of Carillion). Carillion was a British company focused on construction and facilities management (i.e. support services for organisations). It was a significant private-sector partner in PPP projects. By 2014 it had won 60 PPP projects in the UK and Canada, including hospitals, schools, university buildings, prisons, roads and railways.

However, Carillion had increasing burdens of debt, caused, in part, by various major acquisitions, including McAlpine in 2008. Events came to a head when, on 15 January 2018, an application was made to the High Court for a compulsory liquidation of the company.

A subsequent report for the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in light of the collapse of Carillion found that procurement procedures were fundamentally flawed. It found that contracts were awarded based on cost rather than quality. This meant that some contracts were not sustainable. Between 2016 and the collapse of Carillion the government had been forced to renegotiate more than £120m of contracts so that public services could continue.

The ending of PPPs?

On 18 January 2018, the National Audit Office published an assessment of PFI and PF2. The report stated that there were 716 PFI and PF2 projects at the time, either under construction or in operation, with a total capital value of £59.4 billion. In recent years, however, ‘the government’s use of the PFI and PF2 models had slowed significantly, reducing from, on average, 55 deals each year in the five years to 2007/8 to only one in 2016/17.’

At its conference in September 2018, the Labour shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said that, if elected, a Labour government would not award any new PFI/PF2 contracts. He claimed that PFI/PF2 contracts were set to cost the taxpayer £200bn over the coming decade. Labour policy would be to review all existing PFI/PF2 contracts and bring the bulk of them fully back into the public sector.

Then in the Budget of 29 October 2018, the Chancellor announced that no further PFI/PF2 projects would be awarded, although existing ones would continue.

I have never signed off a PFI contract as chancellor, and I can confirm today that I never will. I can announce that the government will abolish the use of PFI and PF2 for future projects.

We will honour existing contracts. But the days of the public sector being a pushover, must end. We will establish a centre of excellence to actively manage these contracts in the taxpayers’ interest, starting in the health sector.

But does this mean that there will be no more public-private partnerships, of which PFI is just one example? The answer is no. As the Chancellor stated:

And in financing public infrastructure, I remain committed to the use of public-private partnership where it delivers value for the taxpayer and genuinely transfers risk to the private sector.

But just what form future PPPs will take is unclear. Clearly, the government will want to get value for money, but that depends on the mechanisms used to ensure efficient and high-quality projects. What is more, there is still the danger that the companies involved could end up with unsustainable levels of debt if economic circumstances change and it will still involve a burden on the taxpayer for the future.

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Questions

  1. Find out how PF2 differs from PFI and assess the extent to which it overcame the problems identified with PFI.
  2. The government is not bringing back existing PFI contracts into the public sector, whereas the Labour Party would do so – at least with some of them. Assess the arguments for and against bringing PFI contracts ‘in-house’.
  3. Find out why Carillion collapsed. To what extent was this due to its taking on PFI contracts?
  4. What were the main findings of the National Audit Office’s assessment of PFI and PF2?
  5. The government still supports the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs). What form could these take other than as PFI/PF2 contracts? Would the problems associated with PFI/PF2 also apply to PPPs in general?

I recently found myself talking about my favourite TV shows from my childhood. Smurfs aside, the most popular one for me (and I suppose for many other people from my generation) had to be Knight Rider. It was a story about a crime fighter (David Hasselhoff) and his a heavily modified, artificially intelligent Pontiac Firebird. ‘Kitt’ was a car that could drive itself, engage in thoughtful and articulate conversations, carry out missions and (of course) come up with solutions to complex problems! A car that was very far from what was technologically possible in the 80s – and this was part of its charm.

Today this technology is becoming reality. Google, Tesla and most major automakers are testing self-driving cars with many advanced features like Kitt’s – if not better. They may not fire rockets, but they can drive themselves; they can search the internet; they can answer questions in a language of your choice; and they can be potentially integrated with a number of other technologies (such as car sharing apps) to revolutionise the way we own and use our cars. It will take years until we are able to purchase and use a self-driving car – but it appears very likely that this technology is going to become roadworthy within our lifetime.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is already becoming part of our life. You can buy a robotic vacuum cleaner online for less than a £1000. You can get gadgets like Amazon’s Alexa, that can help you automate your supermarket shopping, for instance. If you are Saudi, you can boast that you are compatriots with a humanoid: Saudi Arabia was the first country to grant citizenship to Sophia, an impressive humanoid and apparently a notorious conversationalist who does not miss an opportunity to address a large audience – and it has done so numerous times already in technology fairs, national congresses – even the UN Assembly! Sophia is the first robot to be honoured with a UN title!

What will be the impact of such technologies on labour markets? If cars can drive themselves, what is going to happen to the taxi drivers? Or the domestic housekeepers – who may find themselves increasingly displaced by cleaning robots. Or warehouse workers who may find themselves displaced by delivery bots (did you know that Alibaba, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, owns a warehouse where most of the work is carried out by robots?). There is no doubt that labour markets are bound to change. But should we (the human labour force) be worried about it? Acemoglu et al (2017) think that we should:

Using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, we show that robots may reduce employment and wages […] According to our estimates, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 per cent.[1]

Automation is likely to affect unskilled workers more than skilled ones, as unskilled jobs are the easiest ones to automate. This could have widespread social implications, as it might widen the divide between the poor (who are more likely to have unskilled jobs) and the affluent (who are more likely to own AI technologies). As mentioned in a recent Boston Consulting Group report (see below):

The future of work is likely to involve large structural changes to the labour market and potentially a net loss of jobs, mostly in routine occupations. An estimated 15 million UK jobs could be at risk of automation, with 63 per cent of all jobs impacted to a medium or large extent.

On the other hand, the adoption of automation is likely to result in higher efficiency, huge productivity gains and less waste. Automation will enable us to use the resources that we have in the most efficient way – and this is bound to result in wealth creation. It will also push human workers away from manual, routine jobs – and it will force them to acquire skills and engage in creative thinking. One thing is for certain: labour markets are changing and they are changing fast!

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Questions

  1. What do you think is going to be the effect of automation on labour market participation in the future? Why?
  2. Using the Solow growth model, explain how automation is likely to affect economic growth and capital returns.
  3. In the context of the answer you gave to question 2, explain how human capital accumulation may affect the ability of workers to benefit from automation.

[1] Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets, NBER Working Paper No. 23285 (March 2017)