As we saw in the blog post The UK’s poor productivity record, the UK’s productivity, as measured by output per hour worked, has grown much slower than in other major developed countries since the financial crisis. In fact, output per hour is lower now than in 2008. In France and Germany it is around 3 per higher than in 2008; in Japan it is nearly 6% higher; in the USA it is over 8% higher; and in Ireland it is 12% higher.
The chart below shows international comparisons of labour productivity from 2000 to 2014. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
And it is not just labour productivity that has fallen in the UK. Total factor productivity of labour and capital combined has also fallen. This reflects the fall in business investment after the financial crisis and, more recently, meeting the demand for extra output by employing more labour rather than by investing in extra capital.
In his first major speech since the election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, told the CBI that the government was intent on tackling the problem of low and stagnant productivity. This would require investment in infrastructure, such as high-speed rail, better roads, superfast broadband and a new runway in the south east. It would require investment in education, training and research; it would involve cutting red tape for business; it would require making it easier for both parents in a family to work by cutting the cost of childcare. The details of the government’s policies would be made clear in the soon-to-be published Productivity Plan.
But how much difference can the government make? Are there intractable problems that will prove virtually impossible to overcome? How much, indeed, can a government do, however much it would like to? The articles explore the issues.
Will George Osborne’s productivity plan help make Britain a world-beater? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/5/15)
UK productivity has stayed stubbornly low for years. Dare we hope for better? The Guardian (24/5/15)
Joseph Stiglitz: ‘GDP per capita in the UK is lower than it was before the crisis. That is not a success’ The Observer, Anthony Andrew (24/5/15)
Osborne says low productivity key economic challenge BBC News (20/5/15)
Solving the productivity puzzle BBC News, Duncan Weldon (20/4/15)
Osborne faces up to productivity challenge BBC News, Robert Peston (20/5/15)
Osborne makes priority of boosting UK productivity Financial Times, George Parker (20/5/15)
The Bank of England is living in cloud-cuckoo land on wages Independent, David Blanchflower (18/5/14)
Cameron’s Plan Hasn’t Cracked Productivity Slump Flagged by BOE Bloomberg, Jill Ward (14/5/15)
To solve Britain’s productivity puzzle, try asking the workers The Conversation, Stephen Wood (29/6/15)
Inflation Report: Chapter 3, Output and Supply Bank of England (May 2015)
- Define (a) labour productivity; (b) capital productivity; (c) total factor productivity.
- Why has the UK experienced lower productivity than other developed countries?
- Why may the UK’s lower unemployment than other countries in the post-recession period be the direct consequence of lower productivity growth?
- For what reasons might it be difficult for the government to achieve a significant increase in UK productivity?
- How might demand-side policy negatively impact on the supply-side policies that the government might adopt to increase productivity?
- How might the period up to and beyond the referendum in the UK on continuing EU membership impact on productivity?
- How might poor productivity be tackled?
‘Employment has been strong, but productivity and real wages have been flat.’ This is one of the key observations in a new OECD report on the state of the UK economy. If real incomes for the majority of people are to be raised, then labour productivity must rise.
For many years, the UK has had a lower productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) than most other developed countries, with the exception of Japan. But from 1980 to the mid 2000s, the gap was gradually narrowing. Since then, however, the gap has been widening again. This is illustrated in Chart 1, which shows countries’ productivity relative to the UK’s (with the UK set at 100). (Click here for a PowerPoint.)
Compared with the UK, GDP per hour worked in 2013 (the latest data available) was 28% higher in France, 29% higher in Germany and 30% higher in the USA. What is more, GDP per hour worked and GDP per capita in the UK fell by 3.8% and 6.1% respectively after the financial crisis of 2007/8 (see the green and grey lines in Chart 2). And while both indicators began rising after 2009, they were still both below their 2007 levels in 2013. Average real wages also fell after 2007 but, unlike the other two indicators, kept on falling and by 2013 were 4% below their 2007 levels, as the red line in Chart 2 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.)
Although productivity and even real wages are rising again, the rate of increase is slow. If productivity is to rise, there must be investment. This could be in physical capital, human capital or, preferably, both. But for many years the UK has had a lower rate of investment than other countries, as Chart 3 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.) This chart measures investment in fixed capital as a percentage of GDP.
So how can investment be encouraged? Faster growth will encourage greater investment through the accelerator effect, but such an effect could well be short-lived as firms seek to re-equip but may be cautious about committing to increasing capacity. What is crucial here is maintaining high degrees of business confidence over an extended period of time.
More fundamentally, there are structural problems that need tackling. One is the poor state of infrastructure. This is a problem not just in the UK, but in many developed countries, which cut back on public and private investment in transport, communications and energy infrastructure in an attempt to reduce government deficits after the financial crisis. Another is the low level of skills of many workers. Greater investment in training and apprenticeships would help here.
Then there is the question of access to finance. Although interest rates are very low, banks are cautious about granting long-term loans to business. Since the financial crisis banks have become much more risk averse and long-term loans, by their nature, are relatively risky. Government initiatives to provide finance to private companies may help here. For example the government has just announced a Help to Grow scheme which will provide support for 500 small firms each year through the new British Business Bank, which will provide investment loans and also grants on a match funding basis for new investment.
OECD: UK must fix productivity Economia, Oliver Griffin (25/2/15)
The UK’s productivity puzzle BBC News, Lina Yueh (24/2/15)
OECD warns UK must fix productivity problem to raise living standards The Guardian, Katie Allen (24/2/15)
Britain must boost productivity to complete post-crisis recovery, says OECD International Business Times, Ian Silvera (24/2/15)
OECD urges UK to loosen immigration controls on skilled workers Financial Times, Emily Cadman and Helen Warrell (24/2/15)
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Overview OECD (February 2015)
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Full report OECD (February 2015)
- In what ways can productivity be measured? What are the relative merits of using the different measures?
- Why has the UK’s productivity lagged behind other industrialised countries?
- What is the relationship between income inequality and labour productivity?
- Why has UK investment been lower than in other industrialised countries?
- What are zombie firms? How does the problem of zombie firms in the UK compare with that in other countries? Explain the differences.
- What policies can be pursued to increased labour productivity?
- What difficulties are there in introducing effective policies to tackle low productivity?
- Should immigration controls be lifted to tackle the problem of a shortage of skilled workers?
In market capitalism, the stock of manufactured capital provides a flow of output. The profitability of the use of that capital depends on the cost of investing in that capital and the cost of using it, and on the flow of revenues from that capital. Discounted cash flow techniques can be used to assess the profitability of a given investment in capital; the flows of costs and revenues are discounted at a market discount rate to give a net present value (NPV). If the NPV is positive (discounted revenues exceed discounted costs), the investment is profitable; if it is negative, the investment is unprofitable. (See Economics, 8th edition, section 9.3.)
There may be market imperfections in the allocation of investment, in terms of distorted prices and interest rates. These may be the result of market power, asymmetry of information, etc., but in many cases the market allows capital investment to be allocated relatively efficiently.
This is not the case with ‘natural capital’. Natural capital (see also) is the stock of natural resources and ecosystems that, like manufactured capital, yields a flow of goods and services into the future. Natural capital, whilst it can be improved or degraded by human action, is available without investment. Thus the natural capital of the oceans yields fish, the natural capital of the skies yields rain and the natural capital of forests reduces atmospheric CO2.
Even though some natural capital is owned (e.g. private land), much is a common resource. As such, it is free to use and tends to get overused. This is the Tragedy of the Commons – see, for example, the following news items: A modern tragedy of the commons and Is there something fishy going on?.
Natural capital accounting
But would it be possible to give a value to both the stock of natural capital and the goods and services provided by it? Would this environmental accounting enable governments to tax or subsidise firms and individuals for their use or enhancement of natural capital?
On 21 and 22 November 2013, the first World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh. This brought together business leaders, politicians, economists, environmentalists and other scientists to discuss practical ways of taking natural capital into account in decision making. Central to the forum was a discussion of ways of valuing natural capital, or ‘natural capital accounting’. As the forum site states:
Natural capital accounting is a rapidly evolving new way of thinking about how we value the economic benefits we derive from our natural environment. The World Forum on Natural Capital will bring together world-class speakers, cutting edge case studies and senior decision makers from different sectors, in order to turn the debate into practical action.
But if natural capital is not owned, how is it to be priced? How will the costs and benefits of its use be valued? How will inter-generational effects be taken into account? Will firms price natural capital voluntarily if doing so reduces their profits? Will firms willingly extend corporate social responsibility to include corporate environmental responsibility? Will governments be prepared to introduce taxes and subsidies to internalise the costs of using natural capital, even if the effects extend beyond a country’s borders? Will natural capital accounting measure purely the effects on humans or will broader questions of maintaining and protecting environmental diversity for its own sake be taken into account? These are big questions and ones that various organisations are beginning to address.
Despite problems of measurement and incentives, sometimes there are clear economic benefits from careful evaluation and management of natural capital. Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the first Guardian article below:
Her favourite example of natural capital working in practice comes from Vietnam, where “planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just more than $1m but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over $7m. And that only accounts for coast maintenance: mangroves are also nurseries for fish, meaning livelihoods for fishing and source of nutrients … “
One organisation attempting to value natural capital is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB). It also looks at what organisational changes are likely to be necessary for the management of natural capital.
Based on data collected from 26 early adopter companies (60% of them with $10 Billion+ revenues each) across several industry sectors this provides real life evidence on the drivers and barriers for natural capital management.
Pricing the environment is a highly controversial issue. Critics claim that the process can easily be manipulated to serve the short-term interests of business and governments. What is more, where tradable permits markets have been set up, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), prices have often been a poor reflection of social costs and have been open to manipulation. As Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), says:
It is deeply ironic that the same financial markets that caused the economic crisis are now seen as the solution to our environmental crisis. It’s about time we learnt that financial markets need to be reined in, not expanded. Pricing these common resources on which people depend for their survival leaves all of us more exposed to the forces of the global economy, and decisions about whether or not to protect them become a matter of accounting.
The measurement of natural capital and setting up systems to internalise the costs and benefits of using natural capital is both complex and a political minefield – as the following articles show.
Putting a value on nature: Edinburgh conference says business is ‘part of the solution’ Blue & Green Tomorrow, Nicky Stubbs (20/11/13)
Edinburgh forum says putting value on nature could save it BBC News, Claire Marshall (20/11/13)
Natural capital must be the way forward, says IUCN director general The Guardian, Tim Smedley (11/11/13)
Is ‘natural capital’ the next generation of corporate social responsibility? The Guardian, Tim Smedley (7/11/13)
Natural capital accounting: what’s all the fuss about? The Guardian, Alan McGill (27/9/13)
Put nature at the heart of economic and social policymaking The Guardian, Aniol Esteban (1/3/13)
Campaigners warn of dangers of ‘privatised nature’ The Scotsman, Ilona Amos (21/11/13)
Edinburgh conference attempts to ‘privatise nature’ World Development Movement, Miriam Ross (18/11/13)
Valuing Nature BBC Shared Planet, Monty Don (8/7/13)
Sites concerned with natural capital
World Forum on Natural Capital
TEEB for Business Coalition
International Union for Conservation of Nature
- How would you define natural capital?
- What are ecosystem services?
- Is social efficiency the best criterion for evaluating the use of the environment? What other criteria could you use?
- How would you set about deciding what rate of discount to use when evaluating the depletion of or enhancement of natural capital?
- How can game theory provide insights into the strategies of both businesses and governments towards the environment?
- What are the arguments for and against attempting to value natural capital and to incorporate these values in decision making?
A constant feature of the UK economy (and of many other Western economies) has been record low interest rates. Since March 2009, Bank Rate has stood at 0.5%. Interest rates have traditionally been used to keep inflation on target, but more recently their objective has been to stimulate growth. However, have these low interest rates had a negative effect on the business environment?
Interest rates are a powerful tool of monetary policy and by affecting many of the components of aggregate demand, economic growth can be stimulated. This low-interest rate environment is an effective tool to stimulate consumer spending, as it keeps borrowing costs low and in particular can keep mortgage repayments down. However, this policy has been criticised for the harm it has been doing to savers – after all, money in the bank will not earn an individual any money with interest rates at 0.5%! Furthermore, there is now a concern that such low interest rates have led to ‘zombie companies’ and they are restricting the growth potential and recovery of the economy.
A report by the Adam Smith Institute suggests that these ‘zombie companies’ have emerged in part by the low-interest environment and are continuing to absorb resources, which could otherwise be re-allocated to companies with more potential, productivity and a greater contribution to the economic recovery. During a recession, there will undoubtedly be many business closures, as aggregate demand falls, sales and profits decline until eventually the business becomes unviable and loans cannot be repaid. Given the depth and duration of the recent recessionary period, the number of business closures should have been very large. However, the total number appears to be relatively low – around 2% or 100,000 and the report suggests that the low interest rates have helped to ‘protect’ them.
Low interest rates have enabled businesses to meet their debt repayments more easily and with some banks being unwilling to admit to ‘bad loans’, businesses have benefited from loans being extended or ‘rolled over’. This has enabled them to survive for longer and as the report suggests, may be preventing a full recovery. The report’s author, Tom Papworth said:
Low interest rates and bank forbearance represent a vast and badly targeted attempt to avoid dealing with the recession. Rather than solving our current crisis, they risk dooming the UK to a decade of stagnation … We tend to see zombies as slow-moving and faintly laughable works of fiction. Economically, zombies are quite real and hugely damaging, and governments and entrepreneurs cannot simply walk away.
The problem they create is that resources are invested into these companies – labour, capital, innovation. This creates an opportunity cost – the resources may be more productive if invested into new companies, with greater productive potential. The criticism is that the competitiveness of the economy is being undermined by the continued presence of such companies and that this in turn is holding the UK economy back. Perhaps the interest rate rise that may happen this time next year may be what is needed to encourage the re-allocation of capital. However, a 0.5 percentage point rise in interest rates would hardly be the end of the world for some of these companies. Perhaps a more focused approach looking at restructuring is the key to their survival and the allocation of resources to their most productive use. The following articles and the report itself consider the case of the trading dead.
The Trading Dead The Adam Smith Institute, Tom Papworth November 2013
Zombie firms threaten UK’s economic recovery, says thinktank The Guardian, Gyyn Topam (18/11/13)
Zombie companies ‘probably have no long term future’ BBC News (18/11/13)
Rate rise set to put stake through heart of zombie companies Financial Times, Brian Groom (14/11/13)
Why we can still save the zombie firms hindering the UK economic rival City A.M., Henry Jackson (18/11/13)
Breathing new life into zombies The Telegraph, Rachel Bridge (9/11/13)
- Which components of aggregate demand are affected (and how) by low interest rates?
- Why do low interest rates offer ‘protection’ to vulnerable businesses?
- How is the reallocation of resources relevant in the case of zombie companies?
- If interest rates were to increase, how would this affect the debts of vulnerable businesses? Would a small rate irse be sufficient and effective?
- What suggestions does the report give for zombie companies to survive and become more productive?
- Is there evidence of zombie companies in other parts of the world?
Over the past few years, the term ‘bail-out’ has been a common phrase. But, what about the term ‘bail-in’? The latest bank to face financial ruin is the Co-operative Bank, but instead of turning to the tax-payer for a rescue, £1.5 billion will come from bond holders being offered shares in the bank. This will mean that the bank will become listed on the stock market.
Back in 2009, the Co-operative Bank bought Britannia Building Society and it seems that this was the start of its downfall. It took over many bad mortgage loans and loans to companies, and these played a large part in its current financial difficulties.
In order to rescue the bank and raise the capital needed to absorb current and future losses, without turning to the tax-payer, bond-holders of £1.3 billion of loans to the bank will be asked to swap them for shares and bonds, thus leading to significant losses for them. These bond-holders include 7000 private investors.
Since the financial crisis five years ago, the conventional banking model has seen much criticism and many suggested that the mutual structure of the Co-operative provided a better model, creating trust, due to its many stakeholders, who are not as focused on profitability and returns as those shareholders of a listed bank. However, the problems of the Co-operative seem to have put paid to that idea. The bail-in will mean that the bank is now listed on the stock market and thus will have shareholders expecting returns and profitability. This will undoubtedly change the focus of the bank. Euan Sutherland, the new Chief Executive said:
We are very clear that the bank will remain true to responsible and community-based banking and retain its ethical investment stance … Clearly there are lessons to learn and clearly there will be a time to look back and do that but, to be honest, in the last six weeks, where I have been involved with the Co-operative group, we have focused on driving a very solid future for this bank.
The good news is that the savings of those in the Co-operative are safe and taxpayers will not have to fork out any more money.
Yet, the co-operative structure of the bank has long been praised by customers and government alike. But is it perhaps this structure, which has led to its collapse? Furthermore, will the change in structure that will see it listed on the stock market, lead to a change in its approach to banking? The following articles consider the latest bank to run into difficulties.
Co-op Bank unveils rescue plan to tackle the £1.5bn hole BBC News (17/6/13)
Co-op Bank travails show weakness of mutual model Financial Times, Sarah Gordon (21/6/13)
Co-operative Bank to list on stock market in rescue deal The Guardian, Jill Treanor (17/6/13)
Troubled Co-operative Bank unveils rescue plan to plug £1.5bn hole in balance sheet Independent, Nick Goodway (17/6/13)
Co-op Bank announces plan to plug £1.5bn hole Which? (17/6/13)
The Co-operative Bank and the challenge of finding co-op capital The Guardian, Andrew Bibby (13/6/13)
Co-op Bank seeks to fill £1.5bn capital hole Sky News (17/6/13)
Does Co-op Group deserve to keep control of Co-op Bank? BBC News, Robert Peston (9/7/13)
- Why did the Co-operative Bank move into financial trouble?
- What are the key characteristics of a Mutual? Are they disadvantages or advantages?
- What is a ‘bail-in’? Who will gain and who will lose?
- The Co-operative Bank will now be listed on the stock market. What does this mean?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of floating a company on the stock market?
- Why are all banks required to hold capital to absorb losses?