Category: Essential Economics for Business: Ch 11

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?

The monetary policy mandates of central banks have an impact on all our lives. While the terminology might not be familiar to many outside economics, their impact is, however, undeniably important. This is because they set out the objectives for the operation of monetary policy. Adjustments to interest rates or the growth of the money supply, which affect us all, reflect the mandate given to the central bank.

Since 1977 the mandate given to the Federal Reserve (the US central bank) by Congress has been to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates. This mandate has become known as the dual mandate because it emphasises both employment and stable prices. Since 2012, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee has issued an annual statemenent of its long-run goals. The latest was published in January 2019. Since this time, the Federal Reserve has explicitly set the ‘longer-run goal for inflation’ at 2 per cent. It has also emphasised that it would be ‘concerned’ if the inflation rate was persistently above or below this level.

In November 2018 the Federal Reserve began a review of its monetary policy strategy, its tools and how it communicates monetary policy. The review is being conducted within the guidelines that its statutory mandate gives and as well as the longer-term inflation goal of 2 per cent. However, one of the issues being addressed by the review is how the operation of monetary policy can avoid the rate of inflation frequently undershooting 2 per cent, as it has done since the financial crisis of the late 2000s and the introduction of the 2 per cent inflation rate target.

Chart 1 shows the annual rate of consumer price inflation in the US since 1998. It helps to illustrate the concern that low inflation rates can become entrenched. The chart shows that, while the average inflation rate from 1998 to 2008 was 2.7 per cent, from 2009 the average has been only 1.6 per cent. Interestingly, the average since 2012, when the explicit 2 per cent goal was introduced, to the present day is also 1.6 per cent. (Click here to download the PowerPoint chart.)

The concern going forward is that the natural or neutral rate of interest, which is the policy rate at which the rate of inflation is close to its target level and the level of output is close to its potential level, is now lower than in the recent past. Hence, when the next downturn occurs there is likely to be less room for cutting interest rates. Hence, the review is looking, in essence, to future-proof the conduct of monetary policy.

Chart 2 shows the Federal Fund rate since 1998. This is the rate at which commercial banks lend to each other the reserve balances they hold at the Federal Reserve in order to meet their reserve requirements. The Federal Reserve can affect this rate through buying or selling government securities. If it wants to drive up rates, it can sell holdings of government securities and reduce the money supply. If it wants to drive rates down, it can buy government securities and increase the money supply. The effects then ripple through to other interest rates and, in turn, aggregate demand and inflation. (Click here to download a copy of the PowerPoint chart.)

We can see from Chart 2 the dramatic cuts made by the Federal Reserve to interest rates as the financial crisis unfolded. The subsequent ‘normalisation’ of the Federal Funds rate in the 2010s saw the Federal Funds Rate rise to no higher than between 2.25 and 2.5 per cent. Then in 2019 the Federal Reserve began to cut rates again. This was despite historically-low unemployment rates. In November 2019 the unemployment rate fell to 3.5 per cent, its lowest since 1969. This has helped fuel the argument among some economists and financiers, which we saw earlier, that that the natural (or neutral) interest rate is now lower.

If the natural rate is lower, then this raises concerns about the effectiveness of monetary policy in future economic downturns. In this context, the review is considering ways in which the operation of monetary policy would be able to prevent the rate of inflation consistently undershooting its target. This includes a discussion of how the Fed can prevent inflationary expectations becoming anchored below 2 per cent. This is important because, should they do so, they help to anchor the actual rate of inflation below 2 per cent. One possibility being considered is an inflation make-up strategy. In other words, a period of below-target inflation rates would need to be matched by a period where inflation rates could exceed the 2 per cent target in order that the long-term average of 2 per cent is met.

An inflation make-up policy would work like forward guidance in that people and markets would know know that short-term interest rates would be kept lower for longer. This would then help to force longer-term interest rates lower as well as providing people and businesses with greater certainty that interest rates will be lower for longer. This could help to encourage spending, raise economic growth and prevent inflation from overshooting its target for any extensive period of time.

An inflation make-up strategy would, in part, help to cement the idea that the inflation target is effectively symmetrical and that 2 per cent is not an upper limit for the inflation rate. But, it would do more than that: it would allow the Fed to deliberately exceed the 2 per cent target.

An inflation make-up strategy does raise issues. For example, how would the Fed determine the magnitude of any inflation make-up and for how long would a looser monetary stance be allowed to operate? In other words, would an inflation make-up strategy be determined by a specific rule or formula? Or, would the principle be applied flexibly? Finally, could a simpler alternative be to raise the target rate itself, given the tendency to undershoot the 2 per cent target rate? If so, what should that the rate be?

We should know by the end of 2020 whether the Federal Reserve will adopt, when necessary, an inflation make-up monetary policy.

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Questions

  1. What do you understand by the monetary policy mandate of a central bank?
  2. Explain the ways in which the monetary policy mandate of the central bank affects our everyday lives.
  3. Why are inflation-rate expectations important in determining actual inflation rates?
  4. Why is the Federal Reserve concerned about its ability to use monetary policy effectively during future economic downturns?
  5. Discuss the economic arguments for and against central banks operating strict inflation-rate targets.
  6. Does the case for adopting an inflation make-up monetary policy mandate show that the argument for inflation-rate targeting has been lost?
  7. What do you understand by the idea of a natural or neutral policy interest rate? Would the actual rate be expected to be above or below this if the rate of inflation was below its target level?

Elections are times of peak deception. Political parties have several ways in which they can use data to persuade people to vote for them. At one extreme, they can simply make up ‘facts’ – in other words, they can lie. There have been various examples of such lies in the run-up to the UK general election of 12 December 2019. The linked article below gives some examples. But data can be used in other deceptive ways, short of downright lies.

Politicians can use data in two ways. First, statistics can be used to describe, explain and interpret the past. Second, they can be used as the basis of forecasts of the future effects of policies.

In terms of past data, one of the biggest means of deception is the selective use of data. If you are the party currently in power, you highlight the good news and ignore the bad. You do the reverse if you are currently in opposition. The data may be correct, but selective use of data can give a totally false impression of events.

In terms of forecast data, you highlight those forecasts, or elements of them, that are favourable to you and ignore those that are not.

Politicians rely on people’s willingness to look selectively at data. People want to see ‘evidence’ that reinforces their political views and prejudices. News media know this and happily do the same as politicians, selectively using data favourable to their political leanings. And it’s not just newspapers that do this. There are many online news sites that feed their readers with data supportive of their position. And there are many social media platforms, where people can communicate with people in their political ‘bubble’.

Genuine fact-checking sites can help, as can independent forecasters, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies. But too many voters would rather only look at evidence, genuine or not, that supports their political point of view.

This can make life hard for economists who seek to explain the world with an open mind, based on a non-biased use of evidence – and hard for economic forecasters, who want to use full and accurate data in their models and to make realistic assumptions, emphasising that their forecasts are only the most likely outcome, not a certainty. As the article states:

Economic forecasts are flawed and their limitations should be acknowledged. But they should not be blindly dismissed as fake facts. And as far as political debate and discourse is concerned, in the long run, the truth may will out.

Article

Questions

  1. Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse data.
  2. Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse the analysis of economists.
  3. Distinguish between positive and normative statements? Should economists make policy recommendations? If so, in what context?
  4. Why are economic forecasts flawed, but why should they not be dismissed as ‘fake facts’?
  5. Examine the manifestos of two political parties and provide a critique of their economic analysis.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has just published its annual ‘Green Budget‘. This is, in effect, a pre-Budget report (or a substitute for a government ‘Green Paper’) and is published ahead of the government’s actual Budget.

The Green Budget examines the state of the UK economy, likely economic developments and the implications for macroeconomic policy. This latest Green Budget is written in the context of Brexit and the growing likelihood of a hard Brexit (i.e. a no-deal Brexit). It argues that the outlook for the public finances has deteriorated substantially and that the economy is facing recession if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

It predicts that:

Government borrowing is set to be over £50 billion next year (2.3% of national income), more than double what the OBR forecast in March. This results mainly from a combination of spending increases, a (welcome) change in the accounting treatment of student loans, a correction to corporation tax revenues and a weakening economy. Borrowing of this level would breach the 2% of national income ceiling imposed by the government’s own fiscal mandate, with which the Chancellor has said he is complying.

A no-deal Brexit would worsen this scenario. The IFS predicts that annual government borrowing would approach £100 billion or 4% of GDP. National debt (public-sector debt) would rise to around 90% of GDP, the highest for over 50 years. This would leave very little scope for the use of fiscal policy to combat the likely recession.

The Chancellor, Sajid Javid, pledged to increase public spending by £13.4bn for 2020/21 in September’s Spending Review. This was to meet the Prime Minister’s pledges on increased spending on police and schools. This should go some way to offset the dampening effect on aggregate demand of a no-deal Brexit. The government has also stated that it wishes to cut various taxes, such as increasing the threshold at which people start paying the 40% rate of income tax from £50 000 to £80 000. But even with a ‘substantial’ fiscal boost, the IFS expects little or no growth for the two years following Brexit.

But can fiscal policy be used over the longer term to offset the downward shock of Brexit, and especially a no-deal Brexit? The problem is that, if the government wishes to prevent government borrowing from soaring, it would then have to start reining in public spending again. Another period of austerity would be likely.

There are many uncertainties in the IFS predictions. The nature of Brexit is the obvious one: deal, no deal, a referendum and a remain outcome – these are all possibilities. But other major uncertainties include business and consumer sentiment. They also include the state of the global economy, which may see a decline in growth if trade wars increase or if monetary easing is ineffective (see the blog: Is looser monetary policy enough to stave off global recession?).

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IFS Report

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Questions

  1. Why would a hard Brexit reduce UK economic growth?
  2. To what extent can expansionary fiscal policy stave off the effects of a hard Brexit?
  3. Does it matter if national debt (public-sector debt) rises to 90% or even 100% of GDP? Explain.
  4. Find out the levels of national debt as a percentage of GDP of the G7 countries. How has Japan managed to sustain such a high national debt as a percentage of GDP?
  5. How can an expansionary monetary policy make it easier to finance the public-sector debt?
  6. How has investment in the UK been affected by the Brexit vote in 2016? Explain.

With the prospects of weaker global economic growth and continuing worries about trade wars, central banks have been loosening monetary policy. The US central bank, the Federal Reserve, lowered its target Federal Funds rate in both July and September. Each time it reduced the rate by a quarter of a percentage point, so that it now stands at between 1.75% and 2%.

The ECB has also cut rates. In September it reduced the overnight deposit rate for banks from –0.4% to –0.5%, leaving the main rate at 0%. It also introduced a further round of quantitative easing, with asset purchases of €20 billion per month from 1 November and lasting until the ECB starts raising interest rates.

The Australian Reserve Bank has cut its ‘cash rate‘ three times this year and it now stands at an historically low level of 0.75%. Analysts are predicting that it may be forced to introduce quantitative easing if lower interest rates fail to stimulate growth.

Japan continues with its programme of quantitative easing (QE) and other central banks are considering lowering interest rates and/or (further) QE.

But there are two key issues with looser monetary policy.

The first is whether it will be sufficient to provide the desired stimulus. With interest rates already at or near historic lows (although slightly above in the case of the USA), there is little scope for further reductions. QE may help, but without a rise in confidence, the main effect of the extra money may simply be a rise in the price of assets, such as property and shares. It may result in very little extra spending on consumption and investment – in other words, very little extra aggregate demand.

The second is the effect on inequality. By inflating asset prices, QE rewards asset owners. The wealthier people are, the more they will gain.

Many economists and commentators are thus calling for the looser monetary policy to be backed up by expansionary fiscal policy. The boost to aggregate demand, they argue, should come from higher public spending, with governments able to borrow at very low interest rates because of the loose monetary policy. Targeted spending on infrastructure would have a supply-side benefit as well as a demand-side one.

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ECB Press Conference

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by quantitative easing.
  2. What determines the effectiveness of quantitative easing?
  3. Why is President Trump keen for the Federal Reserve to pursue more aggressive interest rate cuts?
  4. What is the Bank of England’s current attitude towards changing interest rates and/or further quantitative easing?
  5. What are the current advantages and disadvantages of governments pursuing a more expansionary fiscal policy?
  6. Compare the relative merits of quantitative easing through asset purchases and the use of ‘helicopter money’.