Category: Economics: Ch 23

It’s two years since Russia invaded Ukraine. Western countries responded by imposing large-scale sanctions. These targeted a range of businesses, banks and other financial institutions, payments systems and Russian exports and imports. Some $1 trillion of Russian assets were frozen. Many Western businesses withdrew from Russia or cut off commercial ties. In addition, oil and gas imports from Russia have been banned by most developed countries and some developing countries, and a price cap of $60 per barrel has been imposed on Russian oil. What is more, sanctions have been progressively tightened over the past two years. For example, on the second anniversary of the invasion, President Biden announced more than 500 new sanctions against individuals and companies involved in military production and supply chains and in financing Russia’s war effort.

The economy in Russia has also been affected by large-scale emigration of skilled workers, the diversion of workers to the armed forces and the diversion of capital and workers to the armaments industry.

So has the economy of Russia been badly affected by sanctions and these other factors? The IMF in its World Economic Forecast of April 2022 predicted that the Russian economy would experience a steep, two-year recession. But, the Russian economy has fared much better than first predicted and the steep recession never materialised.

In this blog we look at Russia’s economic performance. First, we examine why the Russian economy seems stronger today than forecast two years ago. Then we look at its economic weaknesses directly attributable to the war.

Apparent resilience of the Russian economy

GDP forecasts have proved wrong. In April 2022, just after the start of the war, the IMF was forecasting that the Russian economy would decline by 8.5% in 2022 and by 2.3% in 2023 and grow by just 1.5% in 2024. In practice, the economy declined by only 1.2% in 2022 and grew by 3.0% in 2023. It is forecast by the IMF to grow by 2.6% in 2024. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).

Similarly, inflation forecasts have proved wrong. In April 2022, Russian consumer price inflation was forecast to be 21.3% in 2022 and 14.3% in 2023. In practice, inflation was 13.8% in 2022 and 7.4% in 2023. What is more, consumer spending in Russia has remained buoyant. In 2023, retail sales rose by 10.2% in nominal terms – a real rise of 2.8%. Wage growth has been strong and unemployment has remained low, falling from just over 4% in February 2022 to just under 3% today.

So why has the Russian economy seemingly weathered the war so successfully?

The first reason is that, unlike Ukraine, very little of its infrastructure has been destroyed. Even though it has lost a lot of its military capital, including 1120 main battle tanks and some 2000 other armoured vehicles, virtually all of its production capacity remains intact. What is more, military production is replacing much of the destroyed vehicles and equipment.

The second is that its economy started the war in a strong position economically. In 2021, it had a surplus on the current account of its balance of payments of 6.7% of GDP, reflecting large revenues from oil, gas and mineral exports. This compares with a G7 average deficit of 0.7%. It had fiscal surplus (net general government lending) of 0.8% of GDP. The G7 countries had an average deficit of 9.1% of GDP. Its gross general government debt was 16% of GDP. The G7’s was an average of 134%. This put Russia in a position to finance the war and gave it a considerable buffer against economic sanctions.

The third reason is that Russia has been effective in switching the destinations of exports and sources of imports. Trade with the West, Japan and South Korea has declined, but trade with China and various neutral countries, such as India have rapidly increased. Take the case of oil: in 2021, Russia exported 4.4 billion barrels of oil per day to the USA, the EU, the UK, Japan and South Korea. By 2023, this had fallen to just 0.6 billion barrels. By contrast, in 2021, it exported 1.9 billion barrels per day to China, India and Turkey. By 2023, this had risen to 4.9 billion. Although exports of natural gas have fallen by around 42% since 2021, Russian oil exports have remained much the same at around 7.4 million barrels per day (until a voluntary cut of 0.5 billion barrels per day in 2024 Q1 as part of an OPEC+ agreement to prop up the price of oil).

China is now a major supplier to Russia of components (some with military uses), commercial vehicles and consumer products (such as cars and electrical goods). Total trade with China (both imports and exports) was worth $147 billion in 2021. By 2023, this had risen to $240 billion.

The use of both the Chinese yuan and the Russian rouble (or ruble) has risen dramatically as a means of payment for Russian imports. Their share has risen from around 5% in 2021 (mainly roubles) to nearly 75% in 2023 (just over 37% in each currency). Switching trade and payment methods has helped Russia to circumvent many of the sanctions.

The fourth reason is that Russia has a strong and effective central bank. It has successfully used interest rates to control inflation, which is expected to fall from 7.4% in 2023 to under 5% this year and then to its target of 4% in subsequent years. The central bank policy rate was raised from 8.5% to 20% in February 2022. It then fell in steps to 7.5% in September 2022, where it remained until August 2023. It was then raised in steps to peak at 16% in December 2023, where it remains. There is a high level of confidence that the Russian central bank will succeed in bringing inflation back to target.

The fifth reason is that the war has provided a Keynesian stimulus to the economy. Military expenditure has doubled as a share of GDP – from 3.7% of GDP in 2021 to 7.5% in 2024. It now accounts for around 40% of government expenditure. The boost that this has given to production and employment has helped achieve the 3% growth rate in 2023, despite the dampening effect of a tight monetary policy.

Longer-term weaknesses

Despite the apparent resilience of the economy, there are serious weaknesses that are likely to have serious long-term effects.

There has been a huge decline in the labour supply as many skilled and professional workers have move abroad to escape the draft and as many people have been killed in battle. The shortage of workers has led to a rise in wages. This has been accompanied by a decline in labour productivity, which is estimated to have been around 3.6% in 2023.

Higher wages and lower productivity is putting a squeeze on firms’ profits. This is being exacerbated by higher taxes on firms to help fund the war. Lower profit reduces investment and is likely to have further detrimental effects on labour productivity.

Although Russia has managed to circumvent many of the sanctions, they have still had a significant effect on the supply of goods and components from the West. As sanctions are tightened further, so this is likely to have a direct effect on production and living standards. Although GDP is growing, non-military production is declining.

The public finances at the start of the war, as we saw above, were strong. But the war effort has turned a budget surplus of 0.8% of GDP in 2021 to a deficit of 3.7% in 2023 – a deficit that will be difficult to fund with limited access to foreign finance and with domestic interest rates at 16%. As public expenditure on the military has increased, civilian expenditure has decreased. Benefits and expenditure on infrastructure are being squeezed. For example, public utilities and apartment blocks are deteriorating badly. This has a direct on living standards.

In terms of exports, although by diverting oil exports to China, India and other neutral countries Russia has manage to maintain the volume of its oil exports, revenue from them is declining. Oil prices have fallen from a peak of $125 per barrel in June 2022 to around $80 today. Production from the Arabian Gulf is likely to increase over the coming months, which will further depress oil prices.

Conclusions

With the war sustaining the Russian economy, it would be a problem for Russia if the war ended. If Russia won by taking more territory in Ukraine and forcing Ukraine to accept Russia’s terms for peace, the cost to Russia of rebuilding the occupied territories would be huge. If Russia lost territory and negotiated a settlement on Ukraine’s terms, the political cost would be huge, with a disillusioned Russian people facing reduced living standards that could lead to the overthrow of Putin. As The Conversation article linked below states:

A protracted stalemate might be the only solution for Russia to avoid total economic collapse. Having transformed the little industry it had to focus on the war effort, and with a labour shortage problem worsened by hundreds of thousands of war casualties and a massive brain drain, the country would struggle to find a new direction.

Articles

Questions

  1. Argue the case for and against including military production in GDP.
  2. How successful has the freezing of Russian assets been?
  3. How could Western sanctions against Russia be made more effective?
  4. What are the dangers to Western economies of further tightening financial sanctions against Russia?
  5. Would it be a desirable policy for a Western economy to divert large amounts of resources to building public infrastructure?
  6. Has the Ukraine war hastened the rise of the Chinese yuan as a reserve currency?
  7. How would you summarise Russia’s current public finances?
  8. How would you set about estimating the cost to Russia of its war with Ukraine?

Artificial intelligence is having a profound effect on economies and society. From production, to services, to healthcare, to pharmaceuticals; to education, to research, to data analysis; to software, to search engines; to planning, to communication, to legal services, to social media – to our everyday lives, AI is transforming the way humans interact. And that transformation is likely to accelerate. But what will be the effects on GDP, on consumption, on jobs, on the distribution of income, and human welfare in general? These are profound questions and ones that economists and other social scientists are pondering. Here we look at some of the issues and possible scenarios.

According to the Merrill/Bank of America article linked below, when asked about the potential for AI, ChatGPT replied:

AI holds immense potential to drive innovation, improve decision-making processes and tackle complex problems across various fields, positively impacting society.

But the magnitude and distribution of the effects on society and economic activity are hard to predict. Perhaps the easiest is the effect on GDP. AI can analyse and interpret data to meet economic goals. It can do this much more extensively and much quicker than using pre-AI software. This will enable higher productivity across a range of manufacturing and service industries. According to the Merrill/Bank of America article, ‘global revenue associated with AI software, hardware, service and sales will likely grow at 19% per year’. With productivity languishing in many countries as they struggle to recover from the pandemic, high inflation and high debt, this massive boost to productivity will be welcome.

But whilst AI may lead to productivity growth, its magnitude is very hard to predict. Both the ‘low-productivity future’ and the ‘high-productivity future’ described in the IMF article linked below are plausible. Productivity growth from AI may be confined to a few sectors, with many workers displaced into jobs where they are less productive. Or, the growth in productivity may affect many sectors, with ‘AI applied to a substantial share of the tasks done by most workers’.

Growing inequality?

Even if AI does massively boost the growth in world GDP, the distribution is likely to be highly uneven, both between countries and within countries. This could widen the gap between rich and poor and create a range of social tensions.

In terms of countries, the main beneficiaries will be developed countries in North America, Europe and Asia and rapidly developing countries, largely in Asia, such as China and India. Poorer developing countries’ access to the fruits of AI will be more limited and they could lose competitive advantage in a number of labour-intensive industries.

Then there is growing inequality between the companies controlling AI systems and other economic actors. Just as companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Meta grew rich as computing, the Internet and social media grew and developed, so these and other companies at the forefront of AI development and supply will grow rich, along with their senior executives. The question then is how much will other companies and individuals benefit. Partly, it will depend on how much production can be adapted and developed in light of the possibilities that AI presents. Partly, it will depend on competition within the AI software market. There is, and will continue to be, a rush to develop and patent software so as to deliver and maintain monopoly profits. It is likely that only a few companies will emerge dominant – a natural oligopoly.

Then there is the likely growth of inequality between individuals. The reason is that AI will have different effects in different parts of the labour market.

The labour market

In some industries, AI will enhance labour productivity. It will be a tool that will be used by workers to improve the service they offer or the items they produce. In other cases, it will replace labour. It will not simply be a tool used by labour, but will do the job itself. Workers will be displaced and structural unemployment is likely to rise. The quicker the displacement process, the more will such unemployment rise. People may be forced to take more menial jobs in the service sector. This, in turn, will drive down the wages in such jobs and employers may find it more convenient to use gig workers than employ workers on full- or part-time contracts with holidays and other rights and benefits.

But the development of AI may also lead to the creation of other high-productivity jobs. As the Goldman Sachs article linked below states:

Jobs displaced by automation have historically been offset by the creation of new jobs, and the emergence of new occupations following technological innovations accounts for the vast majority of long-run employment growth… For example, information-technology innovations introduced new occupations such as webpage designers, software developers and digital marketing professionals. There were also follow-on effects of that job creation, as the boost to aggregate income indirectly drove demand for service sector workers in industries like healthcare, education and food services.

Nevertheless, people could still lose their jobs before being re-employed elsewhere.

The possible rise in structural unemployment raises the question of retraining provision and its funding and whether workers would be required to undertake such retraining. It also raises the question of whether there should be a universal basic income so that the additional income from AI can be spread more widely. This income would be paid in addition to any wages that people earn. But a universal basic income would require finance. How could AI be taxed? What would be the effects on incentives and investment in the AI industry? The Guardian article, linked below, explores some of these issues.

The increased GDP from AI will lead to higher levels of consumption. The resulting increase in demand for labour will go some way to offsetting the effects of workers being displaced by AI. There may be new employment opportunities in the service sector in areas such as sport and recreation, where there is an emphasis on human interaction and where, therefore, humans have an advantage over AI.

Another issue raised is whether people need to work so many hours. Is there an argument for a four-day or even three-day week? We explored these issues in a recent blog in the context of low productivity growth. The arguments become more compelling when productivity growth is high.

Other issues

AI users are not all benign. As we are beginning to see, AI opens the possibility for sophisticated crime, including cyberattacks, fraud and extortion as the technology makes the acquisition and misuse of data, and the development of malware and phishing much easier.

Another set of issues arises in education. What knowledge should students be expected to acquire? Should the focus of education continue to shift towards analytical skills and understanding away from the simple acquisition of knowledge and techniques. This has been a development in recent years and could accelerate. Then there is the question of assessment. Generative AI creates a range of possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of cheating. How should modes of assessment change to reflect this problem? Should there be a greater shift towards exams or towards project work that encourages the use of AI?

Finally, there is the issue of the sort of society we want to achieve. Work is not just about producing goods and services for us as consumers – work is an important part of life. To the extent that AI can enhance working life and take away a lot of routine and boring tasks, then society gains. To the extent, however, that it replaces work that involved judgement and human interaction, then society might lose. More might be produced, but we might be less fulfilled.

Articles

Questions

  1. Which industries are most likely to benefit from the development of AI?
  2. Distinguish between labour-replacing and labour-augmenting technological progress in the context of AI.
  3. How could AI reduce the amount of labour per unit of output and yet result in an increase in employment?
  4. What people are most likely to (a) gain, (b) lose from the increasing use of AI?
  5. Is the distribution of income likely to become more equal or less equal with the development and adoption of AI? Explain.
  6. What policies could governments adopt to spread the gains from AI more equally?

Since 2019, UK personal taxes (income tax and national insurance) have been increasing as a proportion of incomes and total tax revenues have been increasing as a proportion of GDP. However, in his Autumn Statement of 22 November, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced a 2 percentage point cut in the national insurance rate for employees from 12% to 10%. The government hailed this as a significant tax cut. But, despite this, taxes are set to continue increasing. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), from 2019/20 to 2028/29, taxes will have increased by 4.5 per cent of GDP (see chart below), raising an extra £44.6 billion per year by 2028/29. One third of this is the result of ‘fiscal drag’ from the freezing of tax thresholds.

According to the OBR

Fiscal drag is the process by which faster growth in earnings than in income tax thresholds results in more people being subject to income tax and more of their income being subject to higher tax rates, both of which raise the average tax rate on total incomes.

Income tax thresholds have been unchanged for the past three years and the current plan is that they will remain frozen until at least 2027/28. This is illustrated in the following table.

If there were no inflation, fiscal drag would still apply if real incomes rose. In other words, people would be paying a higher average rate of tax. Part of the reason is that some people on low incomes would be dragged into paying tax for the first time and more people would be paying taxes at higher rates. Even in the case of people whose income rise did not pull them into a higher tax bracket (i.e. they were paying the same marginal rate of tax), they would still be paying a higher average rate of tax as the personal allowance would account for a smaller proportion of their income.

Inflation compounds this effect. Tax bands are in nominal not real terms. Assume that real incomes stay the same and that tax bands are frozen. Nominal incomes will rise by the rate of inflation and thus fiscal drag will occur: the real value of the personal allowance will fall and a higher proportion of incomes will be paid at higher rates. Since 2021, some 2.2 million workers, who previously paid no income taxes as their incomes were below the personal allowance, are now paying tax on some of their wages at the 20% rate. A further 1.6 million workers have moved to the higher tax bracket with a marginal rate of 40%.

The net effect is that, although national insurance rates have been cut by 2 percentage points, the tax burden will continue rising. The OBR estimates that by 2027/28, tax revenues will be 37.4% of GDP; they were 33.1% in 2019/20. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).

Much of this rise will be the result of fiscal drag. According to the OBR, fiscal drag from freezing personal allowances, even after the cut in national insurance rates, will raise an extra £42.9 billion per year by 2027/28. This would be equivalent of the amount raised by a rise in national insurance rates of 10 percentage points. By comparison, the total cost to the government of the furlough scheme during the pandemic was £70 billion. For further analysis by the OBR of the magnitude of fiscal drag, see Box 3.1 (p 69) in the November 2023 edition of its Economic and fiscal outlook.

Political choices

Support measures during the pandemic and its aftermath and subsidies for energy bills have led to a rise in government debt. This has put a burden on public finances, compounded by sluggish growth and higher interest rates increasing the cost of servicing government debt. This leaves the government (and future governments) in a dilemma. It must either allow fiscal drag to take place by not raising allowances or even raise tax rates, cut government expenditure or increase borrowing; or it must try to stimulate economic growth to provide a larger tax base; or it must do some combination of all of these. These are not easy choices. Higher economic growth would be the best solution for the government, but it is difficult for governments to achieve. Spending on infrastructure, which would support growth, is planned to be cut in an attempt to reduce borrowing. According to the OBR, under current government plans, public-sector net investment is set to decline from 2.6% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.8% by 2028/29.

The government is attempting to achieve growth by market-orientated supply-side measures, such as making permanent the current 100% corporation tax allowance for investment. Other measures include streamlining the planning system for commercial projects, a business rates support package for small businesses and targeted government support for specific sectors, such as digital technology. Critics argue that this will not be sufficient to offset the decline in public investment and renew crumbling infrastructure.

To support public finances, the government is using a combination of higher taxation, largely through fiscal drag, and cuts in government expenditure (from 44.8% of GDP in 2023/24 to a planned 42.7% by 2028/29). If the government succeeds in doing this, the OBR forecasts that public-sector net borrowing will fall from 4.5% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.1% by 2028/29. But higher taxes and squeezed public expenditure will make many people feel worse off, especially those that rely on public services.

Videos

  • Fiscal drag
  • Sky News Politics Hub on X, Sophy Ridge (22/11/23)

  • Fiscal drag
  • Sky News Politics Hub on X, Beth Rigby (22/11/23)

Articles

Report and data from the OBR

Questions

  1. Would fiscal drag occur with frozen nominal tax bands if there were zero real growth in incomes? Explain.
  2. Examine the arguments for continuing to borrow to fund a Budget deficit over a number of years.
  3. When interest rates rise, how much does this affect the cost of servicing public-sector debt? Why is the effect likely to be greater in the long run than in the short run?
  4. If the government decides that it wishes to increase tax revenues as a proportion of GDP (for example, to fund increased government expenditure on infrastructure and socially desirable projects and benefits), examine the arguments for increasing personal allowances and tax bands in line with inflation but raising the rates of income tax in order to raise sufficient revenue?
  5. Distinguish between market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies? Why do political parties differ in their approaches to supply-side policy?

In two previous posts, one at the end of 2019 and one in July 2021, 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 as less time was spent at work and in commuting.

If the same output could be produced with fewer hours worked, this would represent an increase in labour productivity measured in output per hour.

The UK’s poor productivity record since 2008

Since the financial crisis of 2007–8, the growth in UK productivity has been sluggish. This is illustrated in the chart, which looks at the production industries: i.e. it excludes services, where average productivity growth tends to be slower. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Prior to the crisis, from 1998 to 2007, UK productivity in the production industries grew at an annual rate of 6.1%. From 2007 to the start of the pandemic in 2020, the average annual productivity growth rate in these industries was a mere 0.5%.

It grew rapidly for a short time at the start of the pandemic, but this was because many businesses temporarily shut down or went to part-time working, and many of these temporary job cuts were low-wage/low productivity jobs. If you take services, the effect was even stronger as sectors such as hospitality, leisure and retail were particularly affected and labour productivity in these sectors tends to be low. As industries opened up and took on more workers, so average productivity fell back. In the four quarters to 2022 Q3 (the latest data available), productivity in the production industries fell by 6.8%.

If you project the average productivity growth rate from 1998 to 2007 of 6.1% forwards (see grey dashed line), then by 2022 Q3, output per hour in the production industries would have been 21/4 times (125%) higher than it actually was. This is a huge productivity gap.

Productivity in the UK is lower than in many other competitor countries. According to the ONS, output per hour in the UK in 2021 was $59.14 in the UK. This compares with an average of $64.93 for the G7 countries, $66.75 in France, £68.30 in Germany, $74.84 in the USA, $84.46 in Norway and $128.21 in Ireland. It is lower, however, in Italy ($54.59), Canada ($53.97) and Japan ($47.28).

As we saw in the blog, The UK’s poor productivity record, low UK productivity is caused by a number of factors, not least the lack of investment in physical capital, both by private companies and in public infrastructure, and the lack of investment in training. Other factors include short-termist attitudes of both politicians and management and generally poor management practices. But one cause is the poor motivation of many workers and the feeling of being overworked. One solution to this is the four-day week.

Latest evidence on the four-day week

Results have just been released of a pilot programme involving 61 companies and non-profit organisations in the UK and nearly 3000 workers. They took part in a six-month trial of a four-day week, with no increase in hours on the days worked and no loss in pay for employees – in other words, 100% of the pay for 80% of the time. The trial was a success, with 91% of organisations planning to continue with the four-day week and a further 4% leaning towards doing so.

The model adopted varied across companies, depending on what was seen as most suitable for them. Some gave everyone Friday off; others let staff choose which day to have off; others let staff work 80% of the hours on a flexible basis.

There was little difference in outcomes across different types of businesses. Compared with the same period last year, revenues rose by an average of 35%; sick days fell by two-thirds and 57% fewer staff left the firms. There were significant increases in well-being, with 39% saying they were less stressed, 40% that they were sleeping better; 75% that they had reduced levels of burnout and 54% that it was easier to achieve a good work–life balance. There were also positive environmental outcomes, with average commuting time falling by half an hour per week.

There is growing pressure around the world for employers to move to a four-day week and this pilot provides evidence that it significantly increases productivity and well-being.

Articles

Questions

  1. What are the possible advantages of moving to a four-day week?
  2. What are the possible disadvantages of moving to a four-day week?
  3. What types of companies or organisations are (a) most likely, (b) least likely to gain from a four-day week?
  4. Why has the UK’s productivity growth been lower than that of many of its major competitors?
  5. Why, if you use a log scale on the vertical axis, is a constant rate of growth shown as a straight line? What would a constant rate of growth line look like if you used a normal arithmetical scale for the vertical axis?
  6. Find out what is meant by the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Does this hold out the hope of significant productivity improvements in the near future? (See, for example, last link above.)

In its latest World Economic Outlook update, the IMF forecasts that the UK in 2023 will be the worst performing economy in the G7. Unlike all the other countries and regions in the report, only the UK economy is set to shrink. UK real GDP is forecast to fall by 0.6% in 2023 (see Figure 1: click here for a PowerPoint). In the USA it is forecast to rise by 1.4%, in Germany by 0.1%, in France by 0.7% and in Japan by 1.8%. GDP in advanced countries as a whole is forecast to grow by 1.2%, while world output is forecast to grow by 2.9%. Developing countries are forecast to grow by 4.0%, with China and India forecast to grow by 5.2% and 6.1%, respectively. And things are not forecast to be a lot better for the UK in 2024, with growth of 0.9% – bottom equal with Japan and Italy.

Low projected growth in the UK in part reflects the tighter fiscal and monetary policies being implemented to curb inflation, which is slow to fall thanks to tight labour markets and persistently higher energy prices. The UK is particularly exposed to high wholesale gas prices, with a larger share of its energy coming from natural gas than most countries.

But the UK’s lower forecast growth relative to other countries reflects a longer-term problem in the UK and that is the slow rate of productivity growth. This is illustrated in Figure 2, which shows output (GDP) per hour worked in major economies, indexed at 100 in 2008 (click here for a PowerPoint). As you can see, the growth in productivity in the UK has lagged behind that of the other economies. The average annual percentage growth in productivity is shown next to each country. The UK’s growth in productivity since 2008 has been a mere 0.3% per annum.

Causes of low productivity/low productivity growth

A major cause of low productivity growth is low levels of investment in physical capital. Figure 3 shows investment (gross capital formation) as a percentage of GDP for the G7 countries from the 2007–8 financial crisis to the year before the pandemic (click here for a PowerPoint). As you can see, the UK performs the worst of the seven countries.

Part of the reason for the low level of private investment is uncertainty. Firms have been discouraged from investing because of a lack of economic growth and fears that this was likely to remain subdued. The problem was compounded by Brexit, with many firms uncertain about their future markets, especially in the EU. COVID affected investment, as it did in all countries, but supply chain problems in the aftermath of COVID have been worse for the UK than many countries. Also, the UK has been particularly exposed to the effects of higher gas prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as a large proportion of electricity is generated from natural gas and natural gas is the major fuel for home heating.

Part of the reason is an environment that is unconducive for investment. Access to finance for investment is more difficult in the UK and more costly than in many countries. The financial system tends to have a short-term focus, with an emphasises on dividends and short-term returns rather than on the long-term gains from investment. This is compounded by physical infrastructure problems with a lack of investment in energy, road and rail and a slow roll out of advances in telecoms.


To help fund investment and drive economic growth, in 2021 the UK government established a government-owned UK Infrastructure Bank. This has access to £22 billion of funds. However, as The Conversation article below points out:

According to a January 2023 report from Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee, 18 months after its launch the bank had only deployed ‘£1 billion of its £22 billion capital to 10 deals’, and had employed just 16 permanent staff ‘against a target of 320’. The committee also said it was ‘not convinced the bank has a strategic view of where it best needs to target its investments’.

Short-termism is dominant in politics, with ministers keen on short-term results in time for the next election, rather than focusing on the long term when they may no longer be in office. When the government is keen to cut taxes and find ways of cutting government expenditure, it is often easier politically to cut capital expenditure rather than current expenditure. The Treasury oversees fiscal policy and its focus tends to be short term. What is needed is a government department where the focus is on the long term.

One problem that has impacted on productivity is the relatively large number of people working for minimum wages or a little above. Low wages discourage firms from making labour-saving investment and thereby increasing labour productivity. It will be interesting to see whether the labour shortages in the UK, resulting from people retiring early post-COVID and EU workers leaving, will encourage firms to make labour-saving investment.

Another issue is company taxation. Until recently, countries have tended to compete corporate taxes down in order to attract inward investment. This was stemmed somewhat by the international agreement at the OECD that Multinational Enterprises (MNEs) will be subject to a minimum 15% corporate tax rate from 2023. The UK is increasing corporation tax from 19% to 25% from April 2023. It remains to be seen what disincentive effect this will have on inward investment. Although the new rate is similar to, or slightly lower, than other major economies, there are some exceptions. Ireland will have a rate of just 15% and is seen as a major alternative to the UK for inward investment, especially with its focus on cheaper green energy. AstraZeneca has just announced that instead of building its new ‘state-of-the-art’ manufacturing plant in England close to its two existing plats in NW England, it will build it in Ireland instead, quoting the UK’s ‘discouraging’ tax rates and price capping for drugs by the NHS.

And it is not just physical investment that affects productivity, it is the quality of labour. Although a higher proportion of young people go to university (close to 50%) than in many other countries, the nature of the skills sets acquired may not be particularly relevant to employers.

What is more, relatively few participate in vocational education and training. Only 32% of 18-year olds have had any vocational training. This compares with other countries, such as Austria, Denmark and Switzerland where the figure is over 65%. Also a greater percentage of firms in other countries, such as Germany, employ people on vocational training schemes.

Another aspect of labour quality is the quality of management. Poor management practices in the UK and inadequate management training and incentives have resulted in a productivity gap with other countries. According to research by Bloom, Sadun & Van Reenen (see linked article below, in particular Figure A5) the UK has an especially large productivity gap with the USA compared with other countries and the highest percentage of this gap of any country accounted for by poor management.

Solutions

Increasing productivity requires a long-term approach by both business and government. Policy should be consistent, with no ‘chopping and changing’. The more that policy is changed, the less certain will business be and the more cautious about investing.

As far a government investment is concerned, capital investment needs to be maintained at a high level if significant improvements are to be made in the infrastructure necessary to support increased growth rates. As far as private investment is concerned, there needs to be a focus on incentives and finance. If education and training are to drive productivity improvements, then there needs to be a focus on the acquisition of transferable skills.

Such policies are not difficult to identify. Carrying them out in a political environment focused on the short term is much more difficult.

Podcasts

Articles

Data

Questions

  1. What features of the UK economic and political environment help to explain its poor productivity growth record?
  2. What are the arguments for and against making higher education more vocational?
  3. Find out what policies have been adopted in a country of your choice to improve productivity. Are there any lessons that the UK could learn from this experience?
  4. How could the UK attract more inward foreign direct investment? Would the outcome be wholly desirable?
  5. What is the relationship between inequality and labour productivity?
  6. What are the arguments for and against encouraging more immigration in the current economic environment?
  7. Could smarter taxes ease the UK’s productivity crisis?