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.
According to Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, the slow growth in global productivity is acting as a brake on the growth in potential income and is thus holding back the growth in living standards. In a recent speech in Washington she said that:
Over the past decade, there have been sharp slowdowns in measured output per worker and total factor productivity – which can be seen as a measure of innovation. In advanced economies, for example, productivity growth has dropped to 0.3 per cent, down from a pre-crisis average of about 1 per cent. This trend has also affected many emerging and developing countries, including China.
We estimate that, if total factor productivity growth had followed its pre-crisis trend, overall GDP in advanced economies would be about 5 percent higher today. That would be the equivalent of adding another Japan – and more – to the global economy.
So why has productivity growth slowed to well below pre-crisis rates? One reason is an ageing working population, with older workers acquiring new skills less quickly. A second is the slowdown in world trade and, with it, the competitive pressure for firms to invest in the latest technologies.
A third is the continuing effect of the financial crisis, with many highly indebted firms forced to make deep cuts in investment and many others being cautious about innovating. The crisis has dampened risk taking – a key component of innovation.
What is clear, said Lagarde, is that more innovation is needed to restore productivity growth. But markets alone cannot achieve this, as the benefits of invention and innovation are, to some extent, public goods. They have considerable positive externalities.
She thus called on governments to give high priority to stimulating productivity growth and unleashing entrepreneurial energy. There are several things governments can do. These include market-orientated supply-side policies, such as removing unnecessary barriers to competition, driving forward international free trade and cutting red tape. They also include direct intervention through greater investment in education and training, infrastructure and public-sector R&D. They also include giving subsidies and/or tax relief for private-sector R&D.
Banks too have a role in chanelling finance away from low-productivity firms and towards ‘young and vibrant companies’.
It is important to recognise, she concluded, that innovation and structural change can lead to some people losing out, with job losses, low wages and social deprivation. Support should be given to such people through better education, retraining and employment incentives.
IMF chief warns slowing productivity risks living standards drop Reuters, David Lawder (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks social turmoil, IMF warns Financial Times, Shawn Donnan (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks creating instability, warns IMF The Guardian, Katie Allen (3/4/17)
The Guardian view on productivity: Britain must solve the puzzle The Guardian (9/4/17)
Reinvigorating Productivity Growth IMF Speeches, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, IMF(3/4/17)
Gone with the Headwinds: Global Productivity IMF Staff Discussion Note, Gustavo Adler, Romain Duval, Davide Furceri, Sinem Kiliç Çelik, Ksenia Koloskova and Marcos Poplawski-Ribeiro (April 2017)
- What is the relationship between actual and potential economic growth?
- Distinguish between labour productivity and total factor productivity.
- Why has total factor productivity growth been considerably slower since the financial crisis than before?
- Is sustained productivity growth (a) a necessary and/or (b) a sufficient condition for a sustained growth in living standards?
- Give some examples of technological developments that could feed through into significant growth in productivity.
- What is the relationship between immigration and productivity growth?
- What policies would you advocate for increasing productivity? Explain why.
First the IMF in its World Economic Outlook, then the European Commission in its Economic Forecasts (see also) and now the OECD in its Economic Outlook (see also) – all three organisations in the latest issues of their 6-monthly publications are predicting slower global economic growth than they did 6 months previously. This applies both to the current year and to 2016. The OECD’s forecast for global growth this year is now 2.9%, down from the 3.7% it was forecasting a year ago. Its latest growth forecast for 2016 is 3.3%, down from the 3.9% it was forecasting a year ago.
Various reasons are given for the gloomier outlook. These include: a dramatic slowdown in global trade growth; slowing economic growth in China and fears over structural weaknesses in China; falling commodity prices (linked to slowing demand but also as a result of increased supply); austerity policies as governments attempt to deal with the hangover of debt from the financial crisis of 2007/8; low investment leading to low rates of productivity growth despite technological progress; and general fears about low growth leading to low spending as people become more cautious about their future incomes.
The slowdown in trade growth (forecast to be just 2% in 2015) is perhaps the most worrying for future global growth. As Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, states in his remarks at the launch of the latest OECD Economic Outlook:
‘Global trade, which was already growing slowly over the past few years, appears to have stagnated and even declined since late 2014, with the weakness centering increasingly on emerging markets, particularly China. This is deeply concerning as robust trade and global growth go hand in hand. In 2015 global trade is expected to grow by a disappointing 2%. Over the past five decades there have been only five other years in which trade growth has been 2% or less, all of which coincided with a marked downturn of global growth.’
So what policies should governments pursue to stimulate economic growth? According to Angel Gurría:
‘Short-term demand needs to be supported and structural reforms to be pursued with greater ambition than is currently the case. Three specific actions are key:
|First, we need to resist and turn back rising protectionism. Trade strengthens competition and investment and revs up the “diffusion machine” – the spread of new technologies throughout the economy – which will ultimately lift productivity.
|Second, we need to step up structural reform efforts, which have weakened in recent years. And here, I mean the whole range of structural reforms – education, innovation, competition, labour and product market regulation, R&D, taxes, etc.
|Third, there is scope to adjust public spending towards investment. If done collectively by all countries, if the sector and projects chosen have high multipliers, and if combined with serious structural reforms, stronger public investment can give a boost to growth and employment and not increase the relative debt burden.’
On this third point, the OECD Economic Outlook argues that ‘the rationale for such investments is that they could help to push economies onto a higher growth path than might otherwise be the case, at a time when private investment growth remains modest.’
‘Collective action to increase public investment can be expected to boost the initial domestic multiplier effects from the stimulus, since private investment and exports in each economy will benefit from stronger demand in other economies. …the multiplier effects from an investment-led stimulus are likely to be a little larger than from other forms of fiscal stimulus, since the former also has small, but positive, supply-side effects.
In other words, the OECD is calling for a relaxation of austerity policies, with public investment being used to provide a stimulus to growth. The higher growth will then lead to increased potential output, as well as actual output, and an increase in tax revenues.
These policy recommendations are very much in line with those of the IMF.
Videos and Webcasts
OECD warns of global trade slowdown, trims growth outlook again Reuters (9/11/15)
OECD returns to revisionism with growth downgrade Euronews, Robert Hackwill (9/11/15)
OECD: Weak China Import Growth Leads Trade Slowdown Bloomberg, Catherine L Mann, OECD Chief Economist (9/11/15)
OECD Economic Outlook: Moving forward in difficult times OECD PowerPoint presentation, Catherine L Mann, OECD Chief Economist (9/11/15)
Press Conference OECD, Angel Gurría and Álvaro Pereira (9/11/15)
OECD cuts world growth forecast Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (9/11/15)
OECD rings alarm bell over threat of global growth recession thanks to China slowdown Independent, Ben Chu (10/11/15)
OECD cuts global growth forecasts amid ‘deep concern’ over slowdown BBC News (9/11/15)
OECD fears slowdown in global trade amid China woes The Guardian, Katie Allen (9/11/15)
The global economy is slowing down. But is it recession – or protectionism? The Observer, Heather Stewart and Fergus Ryan (14/11/15)
Global growth is struggling, but it is not all bad news The Telegraph, Andrew Sentance (13/11/15)
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OCED (9/11/15)
Press Release: Emerging market slowdown and drop in trade clouding global outlook OCED (9/11/15)
Data handout for press OECD (9/11/15)
OECD Economic Outlook, Chapter 3: Lifting Investment for Higher Sustainable Growth OCED (9/11/15)
OECD Economic Outlook: Full Report OECD (9/11/15)
- Is a slowdown in international trade a cause of slower economic growth or simply an indicator of slower economic growth? Examine the causal connections between trade and growth.
- How worried should we be about disappointing growth in the global economy?
- What determines the size of the multiplier effects of an increase in public investment?
- Why are the multiplier effects of an increase in public-sector investment likely to be larger in the USA and Japan than in the UK, the eurozone and Canada?
- How can monetary policy be supportive of fiscal policy to stimulate economic growth?
- Under what circumstances would public-sector investment (a) stimulate and (b) crowd out private-sector investment?
- How would a Keynesian economist respond to the recommendations of the OECD?
- How would a neoclassical/neoliberal economist respond to the recommendations?
- Are the OECD’s recommendations in line with the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows‘?
- What structural reforms are recommended by the OECD? Are these ‘market orientated’ or ‘interventionist’ reforms, or both? Explain.
The French economy is flatlining. It has just recorded the second quarter of zero economic growth, with growth averaging just 0.02% over the past 12 months. What is more, the budget deficit is rising, not falling. In April this year, the French finance minister said that the deficit would fall from 4.3% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014 and to the eurozone ceiling of 3% in 2015. He is now predicting that it will rise this year to 4.4% and not reach the 3% target until 2017.
The deficit is rising because a flatlining economy is not generating sufficient tax revenues. What is more, expenditure on unemployment benefits and other social protection is rising as unemployment has risen, now standing at a record 10.3%.
And it is not just the current economic situation that is poor; the outlook is poor too. The confidence of French companies is low and falling, and investment plans are muted. President Hollande has pledged to cut payroll taxes to help firms, but so far this has not encouraged firms to invest more.
So what can the French government do? And what can the EU as a whole do to help revive not just the French economy but most of the rest of the eurozone, which is also suffering from zero, or near zero, growth?
There are two quite different sets of remedies being proposed.
The first comes from the German government and increasingly from the French government too. This is to stick to the austerity plans: to get the deficit down; to reduce the size of government in order to prevent crowding out; and to institute market-orientated supply-side policies that are business friendly, such as reducing business regulation. Business leaders in France, who generally back this approach, have called for reducing the number of public holidays and scrapping the maximum 35-hour working week. They are also seeking reduced business taxes, financed by reducing various benefits.
Increasingly President Hollande is moving towards a more business-friendly set of policies. Under his government’s ‘Responsibility Pact’, a €40 billion package of tax breaks for business will be financed through €50 billion of cuts in public spending. To carry through these policies he has appointed an ex-investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. He replaces Arnaud Montebourg, who roundly criticised government austerity policy and called for policies to boost aggregate demand.
This brings us to the alternative set of remedies. These focus on stimulating aggregate demand through greater infrastructure investment and cutting taxes more generally (not just for business). The central argument is that growth must come first and that this will then generate the tax revenues and reductions in unemployment that will then allow the deficit to be brought down. Only when economic growth is firmly established should measures be taken to cut government expenditure in an attempt to reduce the structural deficit.
There are also compromise policies being proposed from the centre. These include measures to stimulate aggregate demand, mainly through tax cuts, accompanied by supply-side policies, whether market orientated or interventionist.
As Europe continues to struggle to achieve recovery, so the debate is getting harsher. Monetary policy alone may not be sufficient to bring recovery. Although the ECB has taken a number of measures to stimulate demand, so far they have been to little avail. As long as business confidence remains low, making increased liquidity available to banks at interest rates close to zero will not make banks more willing to lend to business, or businesses more willing to borrow. Calls for an end, or at least a temporary halt, to austerity are thus getting louder. At the same time, calls for sticking to austerity and tackling excessive government spending are also getting louder.
Hollande entrusts French economy to ex-banker Macron Reuters, Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey (26/8/14)
France’s new Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron described by left-wingers as a ‘copy-and-paste Tony Blair’ Independent, John Lichfield (28/8/14)
Merkel praises France’s economic reform plans after Berlin talks with PM Valls Deutsche Welle (22/9/14)
French economy flat-lines as business activity falters Reuters, Leigh Thomas (23/9/14)
French public finances: Rétropédalage The Economist (13/9/14)
French employer group urges ‘shock therapy’ for economy Reuters (24/9/14)
Last chance to save France: loosen 35-hour week and cut public holidays, say bosses The Telegraph (24/9/14)
‘Sick’ France’s economy is stricken by unemployment ‘fever’ The Telegraph (17/9/14)
France’s economics ills worsen but all remedies appear unpalatable The Observer, Larry Elliott and Anne Penketh (31/8/14)
The Fall of France The New York Times, Paul Krugman (28/8/14)
Why Europe is terrified of deflation Salon, Paul Ames (20/9/14)
Europe’s Greater Depression is worse than the 1930s The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (14/8/14)
Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (20/8/14)
Eurozone business growth slows in September, PMI survey finds BBC News (23/9/14)
Europe must ‘boost demand’ to revive economy, US warns BBC News (21/9/14)
Valls says France would never ask Germany to solve its problems Reuters, Annika Breidthardt and Michelle Martin (23/9/14)
The euro-zone economy: Asset-backed indolence The Economist (11/9/14)
Annual macro-economic database (AMECO) Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Business and Consumer Surveys Times Series Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Statistics database European Central Bank
- What types of supply-side reforms would be consistent with the German government’s vision of solving Europe’s low growth problem?
- How could a Keynesian policy of reflation be consistent with getting France’s deficit down to the 3% of GDP limit as specified in the Stability and Growth Pact (see)?
- What is meant by (a) financial crowding out and (b) resource crowding out? Would reflationary fiscal policy in France lead to either form of crowding out? How would it be affected by the monetary stance of the ECB?
- Give examples of market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies.
- What is meant by the terms ‘cyclical budget deficit’ and ‘structural budget deficit’. Could demand-side policy affect the structural deficit?
- Using the European Commission’s Business and Consumer Surveys find our what has happened to business and consumer confidence in France over the past few months.
- How important is business and consumer confidence in determining economic growth in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?