In a post at the end of 2019, we looked at moves around the world to introduce a four-day working week, with no increase in hours on the days worked and no reduction in weekly pay. Firms would gain if increased worker energy and motivation resulted in a gain in output. They would also gain if fewer hours resulted in lower costs.
Workers would be likely to gain from less stress and burnout and a better work–life balance. What is more, firms’ and workers’ carbon footprint could be reduced.
In New Zealand, Unilever has begun a one-year experiment to allow all 81 of its employees to work one day less each week and no more hours per day. This, it argues, might boost productivity and improve employees’ work-life balance.
The biggest experiment so far has been in Iceland. From 2015 to 2019 more than 2500 people took part in a pilot programme (about 1 per cent of Iceland’s working population). This involved reducing the working week to four days and reducing hours worked from 40 hours per week to 35 or 36 hours with no reduction in weekly pay.
Analysis of the results of the trial, published in July 2021, showed that output remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces.
As a result of agreements struck with unions since the end of the pilot programme, 86% of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay or will gain the right to do so.
Many companies and public-sector employers around the world are considering reducing hours or days worked. With working patterns having changed for many employees during the pandemic, employers may now be more open to rethinking ways of deploying their workforce more productively. And this may involve rethinking worker motivation and welfare.
- Distinguish between different ways of measuring labour productivity.
- Summarise the results of the Iceland pilot.
- In what ways may reducing working hours reduce a firm’s total costs?
- 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?
- What types of firm might struggle in introducing a four-day week or a substantially reduced number of hours for full-time employees?
- What external benefits and costs might arise from a shorter working week?
One of the major economic concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic has been the likely long-term scarring effects on economies from bankruptcies, a decline in investment, lower spending on research and development, a loss of skills, discouragement of workers, disruption to education, etc. The result would be a decline in potential output or, at best, a slower growth. These persistent effects are known as ‘hysteresis’ – an effect that persists after the original cause has disappeared.
In a speech by Dave Ramsden, the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor for Markets & Banking, he argued that, according to MPC estimates, the pandemic will have caused a loss of potential output of 1.75%. This shortfall may seem small at first sight, so does it matter? According to Ramsden:
The answer is definitely yes for two reasons. First, a 1¾% shortfall as a share of annual GDP for the UK … represents roughly £39 billion – for context, that’s about half of the education budget. And second, that 1¾% represents a permanent shortfall, or at least a very persistent one, on top of the impact of the immediate downturn. If you lose 1¾% of GDP every year for ten years, then in total you have lost 17.5% of one year’s GDP, or around £390bn in 2019 terms
However, as the IMF blog linked below argues, there may be positive supply-side effects which outweigh these scarring effects, causing a net rise in potential GDP growth. There are two possible reasons for this.
The first is that the pandemic may have hastened the process of digitalisation and automation. Examples include ‘video conferencing and file sharing applications to drones and data-mining technologies’. According to evidence from a sample of 15 countries cited in the blog, a 10% rise in such intangible capital investment is associated with about a 4½% rise in labour productivity. ‘As COVID-19 recedes, the firms which invested in intangible assets, such as digital technologies and patents may see higher productivity as a result.’
The second is a reallocation of workers and capital to more productive sectors. Firms in some sectors, such as leisure, hospitality and retail, have relatively low labour productivity. Many parts of these industries have declined during the pandemic, especially those with high labour intensity. At the same time, there has been a rise in employment in firms where output per worker is higher. Such sectors include e-commerce and those where remote working is possible. The greater the reallocation from low labour-productivity to high labour-productivity sectors, the more will overall labour productivity rise and hence the more will potential output increase.
The size of these two effects will depend to a large extent on expectations, incentives and government policy. The blog cites four types of policy that can help investment and reallocation.
- Improved insolvency and restructuring procedures to enable capital in failed firms to be reallocated to sectors with potential for growth.
- Promoting competition to enable the exit and entry of firms into expanding sectors and to prevent powerful firms from blocking the process.
- Refocusing policy from retaining labour in existing jobs to reskilling workers for new jobs, thereby improving labour mobility from declining to expanding sectors.
- Addressing financial bottlenecks, so as to ensure adequate access to financing for viable firms.
Whether there will be a net increase or decrease in productivity from the pandemic very much depends on the extent to which firms and workers are able and willing to take advantage of new opportunities and the extent to which government supports investment in and reallocation to high-productivity sectors.
Blogs, articles and speeches
- Can actual economic growth be greater than potential economic growth (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
- Give some example of scarring effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
- What effects might short-term policies to tackle the recession caused by the pandemic have on longer-term potential economic growth?
- What practical policies could governments adopt to encourage the positive supply-side effects of the pandemic? To what extent would these policies have negative short-term effects?
- Why might (endogenous) financial crises result in larger and more persistent reductions in potential output than exogenous crises, such as a pandemic or a war?
- Distinguish between interventionist and market-orientated supply-side policies to encourage the reallocation of labour and capital to higher-productivity sectors.
In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.
As the notes to the programme state:
The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?
The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.
It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.
Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?
The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.
- In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
- What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
- To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
- How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
- How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
- How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
- How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
- Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
- How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
- How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
- Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
- How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
- How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
- In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?
At 23:00 on 31 December 2020, the UK withdrew from the European single market. This ended the transition period which followed the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January 2020. But, with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (‘the deal’) signed on 30 December, it was agreed that there would be no tariffs or quotas on trade in goods between the UK and the EU.
So what are the new economic relations between the EU and the UK and how will they impact on the UK economy? What new restrictions are there on trade in goods and on the movement of labour and capital? How is trade in services, including financial services, affected? What new agreements, such as on fishing, will replace previous agreements?
What will happen to trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? What will happen to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
What will happen to regulations over standards of traded products and their production? Will the UK government be able to provide subsidies or other types of support for goods or services exported to the EU? How will disputes about standards and support to companies be resolved?
How will trade with non-EU countries change? If the EU has trade agreements with such countries, do these agreements now apply to trade between the UK and such countries? How free is the UK now to negotiate new trade agreements with non-EU countries? How will the UK’s negotiating strength be affected by its withdrawal from the EU?
Rather than listing the changes here, follow the links below to the articles and assess the nature of the changes and then attempt the questions. The articles represent a balance of views.
What is clear is that these are all big issues and are likely to have a significant impact on the UK economy. Most economists argue that the net effect will be negative on trade and economic growth, but there is huge uncertainty about the magnitude of the effects. Much will depend on how arrangements between the UK and the EU develop over the coming months and years.
- Brexit deal explained: What will be the impact of UK’s agreement with EU?
Sky News, Ed Conway (24/12/20)
- Brexit deal: What is in it?
BBC News, Chris Morris (28/12/20)
- Brexit: What are the key points of the deal?
BBC News, Tom Edgington (30/12/20)
- Brexit trade deal explained: the key parts of the landmark agreement
Financial Times (25/12/20)
- The key details of the Brexit deal summarised, from trade to fishing
The Telegraph, James Crisp and Gordon Rayner (3/1/21)
- Committees, visas and climate change: Brexit experts’ verdicts on the deal details
The Guardian, Lisa O’Carroll (28/12/20)
- The left must stop mourning Brexit – and start seeing its huge potential
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (31/12/20)
- The Guardian view on Britain out of the EU: a treasure island for rentiers
The Guardian, Editorial (27/12/20)
- Brexit Is Finally Done, but It Already Seems Out of Date
New York Times, Mark Landler (30/12/20)
- Towards a modern UK-EU trade relationship
Best for Britain, David Henig (28/12/20)
- Brexit Is a New World Businesses Still Need to Figure Out
Bloomberg, Deirdre Hipwell, Craig Trudell, and Dara Doyle (1/1/21)
UK and EU documents
- Summarise the main features of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and how the UK’s new relationship with the EU differs from being a member.
- What are the potential economic benefits from being outside the EU?
- What are the economic drawbacks for the UK from having left the EU, albeit with the new Trade and Cooperation Agreement?
- On balance, do you think that the UK will gain or lose economically from having left the EU? Explain your answer.
Back in June, we examined the macroeconomic forecasts of the three agencies, the IMF, the OECD and the European Commission, all of which publish forecasts every six months. The IMF has recently published its latest World Economic Outlook (WEO) and its accompanying database. Unlike the April WEO, which, given the huge uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and its economic effects, only forecast as far as 2021, the latest version forecasts as far ahead as 2025.
In essence the picture is similar to that painted in April. The IMF predicts a large-scale fall in GDP and rise in unemployment, government borrowing and government debt for 2020 (compared with 2019) across virtually all countries.
World real GDP is predicted to fall by 4.4%. For many countries the fall will be much steeper. In the UK, GDP is predicted to fall by 9.8%; in the eurozone, by 8.3%; in India, by 10.3%; in Italy, by 10.8%; in Spain, by 12.8%. There will then be somewhat of a ‘bounce back’ in GDP in 2021, but not to the levels of 2019. World real GDP is predicted to rise by 5.2% in 2021. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the growth chart.)
Unemployment will peak in some countries in 2020 and in others in 2021 depending on the speed of recovery from recession and the mobility of labour. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the unemployment chart.)
Inflation is set to fall from already low levels. Several countries are expected to see falling prices.
Government deficits (negative net lending) will be sharply higher in 2020 as a result of government measures to support workers and firms affected by lockdowns and falling demand. Governments will also receive reduced tax revenues. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the general government net lending chart.)
Government debt will consequently rise more rapidly. Deficits are predicted to fall in 2021 as economies recover and hence the rise in debt will slow down or in some cases, such as Germany, even fall. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the general government gross debt chart.)
After the rebound in 2021, global growth is then expected to slow to around 3.5% by 2025. This compares with an average of 3.8% from 2000 to 2019. Growth of advanced economies is expected to slow to 1.7%. It averaged 1.9% from 2000 to 2019. For emerging market and developing countries it is expected to slow to 4.7% from an average of 5.7% from 2000 to 2019. These figures suggest some longer-term scarring effects from the pandemic.
In the short term, the greatest uncertainty concerns the extent of the second wave, the measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus and the compensation provided by governments to businesses and workers. The WEO report was prepared when the second wave was only just beginning. It could well be that countries will experience a deeper recession in 2000 and into 2021 than predicted by the IMF.
This is recognised in the forecast.
The persistence of the shock remains uncertain and relates to factors inherently difficult to predict, including the path of the pandemic, the adjustment costs it imposes on the economy, the effectiveness of the economic policy response, and the evolution of financial sentiment.
With some businesses forced to close, others operating at reduced capacity because of social distancing in the workplace and with dampened demand, many countries may find output falling again. The extent will to a large extent depend on the levels of government support.
In the medium term, it is assumed that there will be a vaccine and that economies can begin functioning normally again. However, the report does recognise the long-term scarring effects caused by low levels of investment, deskilling and demotivation of the parts of the workforce, loss of capacity and disruptions to various supply chains.
The deep downturn this year will damage supply potential to varying degrees across economies. The impact will depend on various factors … including the extent of firm closures, exit of discouraged workers from the labour force, and resource mismatches (sectoral, occupational and geographic).
One of the greatest uncertainties in the medium term concerns the stance of fiscal and monetary policies. Will governments continue to run large deficits to support demand or will they attempt to reduce deficits by raising taxes and/or reducing benefits and/or cutting government current or capital expenditure?
Will central banks continue with large-scale quantitative easing and ultra-low or even negative interest rates? Will they use novel forms of monetary policy, such as directly funding government deficits with new money or providing money directly to citizens through a ‘helicopter’ scheme (see the 2016 blog, New UK monetary policy measures – somewhat short of the kitchen sink)?
Forecasting at the current time is fraught with uncertainty. However, reports such as the WEO are useful in identifying the various factors influencing the economy and how seriously they may impact on variables such as growth, unemployment and government deficits.
Report, speeches and data
- World Economic Outlook, October 2020: A Long and Difficult Ascent
IMF, Report (October 2020)
- World Economic Outlook Databases
IMF (October 2020)
- “We Must Take the Right Actions Now!”—Opening Remarks for Annual Meetings Press Conference
IMF, Speech, Kristalina Georgieva, IMF Managing Director (14/10/20)
- Press Briefing: World Economic Outlook
IMF, Gita Gopinath, Chief Economist and Director of the Research Department, IMF; Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti, Deputy Director, Research Department, IMF; Malhar Shyam Nabar, Division Chief, Research Department, IMF; Moderator: Raphael Anspach, Senior Communications officer, Communications Department, IMF (13/10/20)
- Explain what is meant by ‘scarring effects’. Identify various ways in which the pandemic is likely to affect aggregate supply over the longer term.
- Consider the arguments for and against governments continuing to run large budget deficits over the next few years.
- What are the arguments for and against using ‘helicopter money’ in the current circumstances?
- On purely economic grounds, what are the arguments for imposing much stricter lockdowns when Covid-19 rates are rising rapidly?
- Chose two countries other than the UK, one industrialised and one developing. Consider what policies they are pursuing to achieve an optimal balance between limiting the spread of the virus and protecting the economy.