Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the UK was in recession at the end of 2023. The normal definition of recession is two quarters of falling real GDP. This is what happened to the UK in the last two quarters of 2023, with GDP falling by 0.1% in Q3 and 0.3% in Q4. In Q4, output of the service industries fell by 0.2%, production industries by 1.0% and construction by 1.3%.
But how bad is this? What are the implications for living standards? In some respects, the news is not as bad as the term ‘recession’ might suggest. In other respects, it’s worse than the headline figures might imply.
The good news (or not such bad news)
The first thing to note is that other countries too experienced a recession or slowdown in the second half of 2023. So, relative to these countries, the UK is not performing that badly. Japan, for example, also experienced a mild recession; Germany just missed one. These poor economic growth rates were caused largely by higher global energy and food prices and by higher central bank interest rates in response. The good news is that such cost pressures are already easing.
The second piece of good news is that GDP is expected to start growing again (modestly) in 2024. This will be helped by the Bank of England cutting interest rates. The Monetary Policy Committee is expected to do this at its May, June or August meetings provided that inflation falls. Annual CPI inflation was 4% in January – the same as in December. But it is expected to fall quite rapidly over the coming months provided that there are no serious supply-side shocks (e.g. from world political factors).
The third is that the recession is relatively modest compared with ones in the past. In the recession following the financial crisis, real GDP fell by 5.3% in 2009; during the pandemic, GDP fell by 10.7% in 2020. For this reason, some commentators have said that the last two quarters of 2023 represent a mere ‘technical recession’, with the economy expected to grow again in 2024.
Why things may be worse than the headline figures suggest
Real GDP per head
So far we have considered real GDP (i.e. GDP adjusted for inflation). But if changes in GDP are to reflect changes in living standards, we need to consider real GDP per head. Population is rising. This means that the rate of growth in real GDP per head is lower than the rate of growth in real GDP
For 2023 as a whole, while real GDP rose by 0.20%, real GDP per head fell by 0.67%. In the last two quarters of 2023, while real GDP fell by 0.1% and 0.3% respectively, real GDP per head fell by 0.4% and 0.6%, respectively, having already fallen in each of the previous five quarters. Chart 1 shows real GDP growth and real GDP growth per head from 2007 to 2023 (click here for a PowerPoint). As you can see, given population growth, real GDP per head has consistently grown slower than real GDP.
If we are assessing the UK’s potential for growth in GDP, rather than the immediate past, it is useful to look at GDP growth over a longer period. Looking at past trend growth rates and explaining them can give us an indication of the likely future path of the growth in GDP – at least in the absence of a significant change in underlying economic factors. Since 2007, the average annual rate of growth of real GDP has been only 1.1% and that of real GDP per head a mere 0.4%.
This compares unfavourably with the period from 1994 to 2007, when the average annual rate of growth of real GDP was 3.0% and that of real GDP per head was 2.5%.
This is illustrated in Chart 2 (click here for a PowerPoint). The chart also projects the growth rate in GDP per head of 2.5% forward from 2007 to 2023. Had this growth rate been achieved since 2007, GDP per head in 2023 would have been 41.4% higher than it actually was.
It is not only the UK that has seen low growth over the past 15 years compared to previous years. It has achieved a similar average annual growth rate over the period to Germany (1.1%), lower rates than the USA (1.8%) and Canada (1.6%), but higher than France (0.9%) and Japan (0.4%).
A key determinant of economic growth is investment. Since 2008, the UK has invested an average of 17.3% of GDP. This is the lowest of the G7 countries and compares with 24.9% in Japan, 23.7% in Canada, 23.5% in France, 21.3% in Germany, 20.4% in the USA and 19.1% in Italy. If UK growth is to recover strongly over the longer term, the rate of investment needs to increase, both private and public. Of course, investment has to be productive, as the key underlying determinant of economic growth is the growth in productivity.
Low productivity growth
This is a key issue for the government – how to encourage a growth in productivity. The UK’s record of productivity growth has been poor since 2008. The period from 1996 to 2006 saw an average annual growth in labour productivity of 6.4%. Since then, however, labour productivity has grown by an average annual rate of only 0.3%. This is illustrated in Chart 3 (click here for a PowerPoint). If the pre-2007 rate had continued to the end of 2023, labour productivity would be 189% higher. This would have made GDP per head today substantially higher. If GDP per head is to grow faster, then the underlying issue of a poor growth in labour productivity will need to be addressed.
Inequality and poverty
Then there is the issue of the distribution of national income. The UK has a high level of income inequality. In 2022 (the latest data available), the disposable income of the poorest 20% of households was £13 218; that for the richest 20% was £83 687. The top 1% of income earners’ share of disposable income is just under 9.0%. (Note that disposable income is after income taxes have been deducted and includes cash benefits and is thus more equally distributed than original income.)
The poorest 20% have been hit badly by the cost-of-living crisis, with many having to turn to food banks and not being able to afford to heat their homes adequately. They are also particularly badly affected by the housing crisis, with soaring and increasingly unaffordable rents. Many are facing eviction and others live in poor quality accommodation. Simple growth rates in real GDP do not capture such issues.
Limited scope for growth policies
Fiscal policy has an important role in stimulating growth. Conservatives stress tax cuts as a means of incentivising entrepreneurs and workers. Labour stresses the importance of public investment in infrastructure, health, education and training. Either way, such stimulus policy requires financing.
But, public finances have been under pressure in recent years, especially from COVID support measures. General government gross debt has risen from 27.7% of GDP in 1990/91 to 99.4% in 2022/23. This is illustrated in Chart 4 (click here for a PowerPoint). Although it has fallen from the peak of 107.6% of GDP in 2020/21 (during the COVID pandemic), according to the Office for Budget Responsibility it is set to rise again, peaking at 103.8% in 2026/27. There is thus pressure on the government to reduce public-sector borrowing, not increase it. This makes it difficult to finance public investment or tax cuts.
Measuring living standards
Questions about real GDP have huge political significance. Is the economy in recession? What will happen to growth in GDP over the coming months. Why has growth been sluggish in recent years? The implication is that if GDP rises, living standards will rise; if GDP falls, living standards will fall. But changes in GDP, even if expressed in terms of real GDP and even if the distribution of GDP is taken into account, are only a proxy for living standards. GDP measures the market value of the output of goods and services and, as such, may not necessarily be a good indicator of living standards, let alone well-being.
Produced goods and services that are not part of GDP
The output of some goods and services goes unrecorded. As we note in Economics, 11e (section 15.2), “If you employ a decorator to paint your living room, this will be recorded in the GDP statistics. If, however, you paint the room yourself, it will not. Similarly, if a childminder is employed by parents to look after their children, this childcare will form part of GDP. If, however, a parent stays at home to look after the children, it will not.
The exclusion of these ‘do-it-yourself’ and other home-based activities means that the GDP statistics understate the true level of production in the economy. If over time there is an increase in the amount of do-it-yourself activities that people perform, the figures will also understate the rate of growth of national output.” With many people struggling with the cost of living, such a scenario is quite likely.
There are also activities that go unrecorded in the ‘underground’ or ‘shadow’ economy: unemployed people doing casual jobs for cash in hand that they do not declare to avoid losing benefits; people doing extra work outside their normal job and not declaring the income to evade taxes; builders doing work for cash to save the customer paying VAT.
Large amounts of production and consumption involve external costs to the environment and to other people. These externalities are not included in the calculation of GDP.
If external costs increase faster than GDP, then GDP growth will overstate the rise in living standards. If external costs rise more slowly than GDP (or even fall), then GDP growth will understate the rise in living standards. We assume here that living standards include social and environmental benefits and are reduced by social and environmental costs.
Human costs of production
If production increases as a result of people having to work harder or longer hours, its net benefit will be less. Leisure is a desirable good, and so too are pleasant working conditions, but these items are not included in the GDP figures.
The production of certain ‘bads’ leads to an increase in GDP
Some of the undesirable effects of growth may in fact increase GDP! Take the examples of crime, stress-related illness and environmental damage. Faster growth may lead to more of all three. But increased crime leads to more expenditure on security; increased stress leads to more expenditure on health care; and increased environmental damage leads to more expenditure on environmental clean-up. These expenditures add to GDP. Thus, rather than reducing GDP, crime, stress and environmental damage actually increase it.
Alternative approaches to measuring production and income
There have been various attempts to adjust GDP (actual or potential) to make it a better indicator of total production or income or, more generally, of living standards.
Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW)
As Case Study 9.20 in the Essentials of Economics (9e) website explains, ISEW starts with consumption, as measured in GDP, and then makes various adjustments to account for factors that GDP ignores. These include:
- Inequality: the greater the inequality, the more the figure for consumption is reduced. This is based on the assumption of a diminishing marginal utility of income, such that an additional pound is worth less to a rich person than to a poor person.
- Household production (such as childcare, care for the elderly or infirm, housework and various do-it-yourself activities). These ‘services of household labour’ add to welfare and are thus entered as a positive figure.
- Defensive expenditures. This is spending to offset the adverse environmental effects of economic growth (e.g. asthma treatment for sufferers whose condition arises from air pollution). Such expenditures are taken out of the calculations.
- ‘Bads’ (such as commuting costs). The monetary expense entailed is entered as a negative figure (to cancel out its measurement in GDP as a positive figure) and then an additional negative element is included for the stress incurred.
- Environmental costs. Pollution is entered as a negative figure.
- Resource depletion and damage. This too is given a negative figure, in just the same way that depreciation of capital is given a negative figure when working out net national income.
Productive Capacities Index (PCI)
In 2023, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) launched a new index to provide a better measure of countries’ economic potential. What the index focuses on is not actual GDP but potential output: in other words, ‘countries’ abilities to produce goods and deliver services’.
The PCI comprises 42 indicators under eight headings: human capital, natural capital, information and communication technology (ICT), structural change (the movement of labour and other productive resources from low-productivity to high-productivity economic activities), transport infrastructure, institutions (political, legal and financial) and the private sector (ease of starting businesses, availability of credit, ease of cross-border trade, etc.). It covers 194 economies since 2000 (currently to 2022). As UNCTAD states, ‘The PCI can help diagnose the areas where countries may be leading or falling behind, spotlighting where policies are working and where corrective efforts are needed.’ Chart 5 shows the PCI for various economies from 2000 to 2022 (click here for a PowerPoint).
The UK, with a PCI of 65.8 in 2022, compares relatively favourably with other developed countries. The USA’s PCI is somewhat higher (69.2), as is The Netherlands’ (69.8); Germany’s is the same (65.8); France’s is somewhat lower (62.8). The world average is 46.8. For developing countries, China is relatively high (60.7); India’s (45.3) is close to the developing country average of 43.4.
Looked at over a longer time period, the UK’s performance is relatively weak. The PCI in 2022 (65.8) was below that in 2006 (66.9) and below the peak of 67.6 in 2018.
GDP and well-being
GDP is often used as a proxy for well-being. If real GDP per head increases, then it is assumed that well-being will increase. In practice, people’s well-being depends on many factors, not just their income, although income is one important element.
The UK Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme
The MNW programme was established in 2010. This has resulted in Office for National Statistics developing new measures of national well-being. The ONS produces statistical bulletins and datasets with its latest results.
The aim of the programme is to provide a ‘fuller picture’ of how society is doing beyond traditional economic indicators. There are currently 44 indicators. These are designed to describe ‘how we are doing as individuals, as communities and as a nation, and how sustainable this is for the future’. The measures fall within a number of categories, including: personal well-being, relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance, the economy, education and skills, governance and the natural environment.
In the light of the limitations of GDP as a measure of living standards, what can we make of the news that the UK entered recession in the last half of 2023? It does show that the economy is sluggish and that the production of goods and services that are included in the GDP measure declined.
But to get a fuller assessment of the economy, it is important to take a number of other factors into account. If we are to go further and ask what has happened to living standards or to well-being, then we have to look at a range of other factors. If we are to ask what the latest figures tell us about what is likely to happen in the future to production, living standards and well-being, then we will need to look further still.
- Britain falls into recession, with worst GDP performance in 2023 in years
CNN, Hanna Ziady (15/2/24)
- UK economy slipped into recession in 2023
Financial Times, Valentina Romei and George Parker (15/2/24)
- UK economy fell into recession after people cut spending
BBC News, Dearbail Jordan & Faisal Islam (15/2/24)
- Should we care that the UK is in recession?
BBC News, Faisal Islam (15/2/24)
- UK tips into recession in blow to Rishi Sunak
The Guardian, Richard Partington (15/2/24)
- Britain is in recession… and huge immigration has been masking how much poorer we’re getting
MSN, James Tapsfield (15/2/24)
- This isn’t a “mild” recession
The New Statesman, Duncan Weldon (15/2/24)
- UK middle classes ‘struggling despite incomes of up to £60,000 a year’
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (20/2/24)
- What is GDP and how is it measured?
BBC News (15/2/24)
- World at One (from 7’00” to 25’14”)
BBC Sounds, Torsten Bell and Norman Lamont (15/2/24)
- Does High GDP Mean Economic Prosperity?
Investopedia, Lisa Smith (29/9/23)
- A critical assessment of GDP as a measure of economic performance and social progress
Carnegie UK, Cressida Gaukroger (June 2023)
- When it comes to measuring economic welfare, GDP doesn’t cut it
Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst (1/9/23)
- UNCTAD launches new index for countries to better measure economic potential
UNCTAD News (20/6/23)
- Redefining Economic Growth for a Climate-Conscious World
Forbes, Judah Taub (28/9/23)
- Bobby Kennedy on GDP: ‘measures everything except that which is worthwhile’
The Guardian, Simon Rogers (24/5/12)
- A guide to the UK National Accounts: Satellite Accounts
Data and Analysis
- GDP first quarterly estimate, UK: October to December 2023
- GDP (Average) per head, q-on-q4 growth rate CVM SA % (series N3Y8)
- Gross domestic product (Average) per head, CVM market prices: SA (series IHXW)
- GDP per capita, current prices (UK)
- Productive capacities index, annual, 2000-2022
- The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK
The Equality Trust (2023)
- Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2023
IFS, Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, Tom Waters, Thomas Wernham and Xiaowei Xu (July 2023)
- Quarterly personal well-being estimates – seasonally adjusted
- Using GDP and other data, summarise the outlook for the UK economy.
- Why is GDP so widely used as an indicator of living standards?
- Explain the three methods of measuring GDP?
- What key contributors to living standards are omitted from GDP?
- What are the ONS Satellite Accounts? Are they useful for measuring living standards?
- Assess the UK’s economic potential against each of the eight category indices in the Productive Capacities Index.
- What is the difference between ‘living standards’ and ‘well-being’?
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.
- Results from world’s largest 4 day week trial bring good news for the future of work
4 Day Week Global, Charlotte Lockhart (21/2/23)
- Four-day week: ‘major breakthrough’ as most UK firms in trial extend changes
The Guardian, Heather Stewart (21/2/23)
- Senedd committee backs four-day working week trial in Wales
The Guardian, Steven Morris (24/1/23)
- ‘Major breakthrough’: Most firms say they’ll stick with a four-day working week after successful trial
Sky News, Alice Porter (21/2/23)
- Major four-day week trial shows most companies see massive staff mental health benefits and profit increase
Independent, Anna Wise (21/2/23)
- Four-day week: Which countries have embraced it and how’s it going so far?
euronews, Josephine Joly and Luke Hurst (23/2/23)
- Firms stick to four-day week after trial ends
BBC News, Simon Read, Lucy Hooker & Emma Simpson (21/2/23)
- The climate benefits of a four-day workweek
BBC Future Planet, Giada Ferraglioni and Sergio Colombo (21/2/23)
- Four-day working week: why UK businesses and workers will continue with new work pattern, plus pros and cons
National World, Rochelle Barrand (22/2/23)
- Most companies in UK four-day week trial to continue with flexible working
Financial Times, Daniel Thomas and Emma Jacobs (21/2/23)
- The pros and cons of a four-day working week
Financial Times, Editorial (13/2/23)
- Explaining the UK’s productivity slowdown: Views of leading economists
VoxEU, Ethan Ilzetzki (11/3/20)
- Why the promised fourth industrial revolution hasn’t happened yet
The Conversation, Richard Markoff and Ralf Seifert (27/2/23)
- What are the possible advantages of moving to a four-day week?
- What are the possible disadvantages of moving to a four-day week?
- What types of companies or organisations are (a) most likely, (b) least likely to gain from a four-day week?
- Why has the UK’s productivity growth been lower than that of many of its major competitors?
- 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?
- 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.
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.
- UK to perform worst of major economies in 2023, says IMF – here’s how to achieve long-term growth
The Conversation, Michael Kitson (2/2/23)
- The UK economy has recovered from doom and recession before – and it can do so again: the Economy 2030 Inquiry
Resolution Foundation, Centre for Economic Performance and Nuffield Foundation, Krishan Shah (7/2/23)
- Minding the (productivity and income) gaps: the Economy 2030 Inquiry
Resolution Foundation, Centre for Economic Performance and Nuffield Foundation, Krishan Shah and Gregory Thwaites (3/2/23)
- How to fix the British economy
Financial Times, Tim Harford (3/2/23)
- Is the IMF right about the UK economy?
Financial Times, Chris Giles (31/1/23)
- Why is UK Productivity Low and How Can It Improve?
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), Issam Samiri and Stephen Millard (26/9/22)
- Britain’s productivity puzzle
LSE British Politics and Policy, Ben Clift and Sean McDaniel (7/9/22)
- Why is the UK So Unproductive Compared to Germany?
Agency Central (26/8/20)
- Smarter taxes could ease UK productivity crisis
Reuters, Francesco Guerrera (9/1/23)
- Diagnosing the UK productivity slowdown: which sectors matter and why?
The Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge, Lucy Hampton (20/1/23)
- Management as a Technology?
National Bureau of Economic Research, Nicholas Bloom, Raffaella Sadun & John Van Reenen (October 2017)
- Take AstraZeneca’s warning seriously. The UK is missing out in life sciences
The Guardian, Nils Pratley (9/2/23)
- What features of the UK economic and political environment help to explain its poor productivity growth record?
- What are the arguments for and against making higher education more vocational?
- 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?
- How could the UK attract more inward foreign direct investment? Would the outcome be wholly desirable?
- What is the relationship between inequality and labour productivity?
- What are the arguments for and against encouraging more immigration in the current economic environment?
- Could smarter taxes ease the UK’s productivity crisis?
On 10 March, the House of Representatives gave final approval to President Biden’s $1.9tr fiscal stimulus plan (the American Rescue Plan). Worth over 9% of GDP, this represents the third stage of an unparalleled boost to the US economy. In March 2020, President Trump secured congressional agreement for a $2.2tr package (the CARES Act). Then in December 2020, a bipartisan COVID relief bill, worth $902bn, was passed by Congress.
By comparison, the Obama package in 2009 in response to the impending recession following the financial crisis was $831bn (5.7% of GDP).
The American Rescue Plan
The Biden stimulus programme consists of a range of measures, the majority of which provide monetary support to individuals. These include a payment of $1400 per person for single people earning less than $75 000 and couples less than $150 000. These come on top of payments of $1200 in March 2020 and $600 in late December. In addition, the top-up to unemployment benefits of $300 per week agreed in December will now continue until September. Also, annual child tax credit will rise from $2000 annually to as much as $3600 and this benefit will be available in advance.
Other measures include $350bn in grants for local governments depending on their levels of unemployment and other needs; $50bn to improve COVID testing centres and $20bn to develop a national vaccination campaign; $170bn to schools and universities to help them reopen after lockdown; and grants to small businesses and specific grants to hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality, airlines, airports and rail companies.
Despite supporting the two earlier packages, no Republican representative or senator backed this latest package, arguing that it was not sufficiently focused. As a result, reaction to the package has been very much along partisan lines. Nevertheless, it is supported by some 90% of Democrat voters and 50% of Republican voters.
Is the stimulus the right amount?
Although the latest package is worth $1.9tr, aggregate demand will not expand by this amount, which will limit the size of the multiplier effect. The reason is that the benefits multiplier is less than the government expenditure multiplier as some of the extra money people receive will be saved or used to reduce debts.
With $3tr representing some 9% of GDP, this should easily fill the estimated negative output gap of between 2% and 3%, especially when multiplier effects are included. Also, with savings having increased during the recession to put them some 7% above normal, the additional amount saved may be quite small, and wealthier Americans may begin to reduce their savings and spend a larger proportion of their income.
So the problem might be one of excessive stimulus, which in normal times could result in crowding out by driving up interest rates and dampening investment. However, the Fed is still engaged in a programme of quantitative easing. Between mid-March 2020 and the end of March 2021, the Fed’s portfolio of securities held outright grew from $3.9tr to $7.2tr. What is more, many economists predict that inflation is unlikely to rise other than very slightly. If this is so, it should allow the package to be financed easily. Debt should not rise to unsustainable levels.
Other economists argue, however, that inflationary expectations are rising, reflected in bond yields, and this could drive actual inflation and force the Fed into the awkward dilemma of either raising interest rates, which could have a significant dampening effect, or further increasing money supply, potentially leading to greater inflationary problems in the future.
A lot will depend what happens to potential GDP. Will it rise over the medium term so that additional spending can be accommodated? If the rise in spending encourages an increase in investment, this should increase potential GDP. This will depend on business confidence, which may be boosted by the package or may be dampened by worries about inflation.
Additional packages to come
Potential GDP should also be boosted by two further packages that Biden plans to put to Congress.
The first is a $2.2tr infrastructure investment plan, known as the American Jobs Plan. This is a 10-year plan to invest public money in transport infrastructure (such as rebuilding 20 000 miles of road and repairing bridges), public transport, electric vehicles, green housing, schools, water supply, green power generation, modernising the power grid, broadband, R&D in fields such as AI, social care, job training and manufacturing. This will be largely funded through tax increases, such as gradually raising corporation tax from 21% to 28% (it had been cut from 35% to 21% by President Trump) and taxing global profits of US multinationals. However, the spending will generally precede the increased revenues and thus will raise aggregate demand in the initial years. Only after 15 years are revenues expected to exceed costs.
The second is a yet-to-be announced plan to increase spending on childcare, healthcare and education. This should be worth at least $1tr. This will probably be funded by tax increases on income, capital gains and property, aimed largely at wealthy individuals. Again, it is hoped that this will boost potential GDP, in this case by increasing labour productivity.
With earlier packages, the total increase in public spending will be over $8tr. This is discretionary fiscal policy writ large.
- Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill wins final approval in House
Reuters, Susan Cornwell and Makini Brice (10/3/21)
- Biden’s Covid stimulus plan: It costs $1.9tn but what’s in it?
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (6/3/21)
- Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Challenge: End the Coronavirus Crisis Faster
New York Times, Jim Tankersley and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (22/3/21)
- Joe Biden writes a cheque for America – and the rest of the world
The Observer, Phillip Inman (13/3/21)
- Spend or save: Will Biden’s stimulus cheques boost the economy?
Aljazeera, Cinnamon Janzer (9/3/21)
- After Biden stimulus, US economic growth could rival China’s for the first time in decades
CNN, Matt Egan (12/3/21)
- Larry Summers, who called out inflation fears with Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, says the US is seeing ‘least responsible’ macroeconomic policy in 40 years
Business Insider, John L. Dorman (21/3/21)
- With $1.9 Trillion in New Spending, America Is Headed for Financial Fragility
Barron’s, Leslie Lipschitz and Josh Felman (30/3/21)
- Biden unveils ‘once-in-a generation’ $2tn infrastructure investment plan
The Guardian, Lauren Gambino (31/3/21)
- Biden unveils $2tn infrastructure plan and big corporate tax rise
Financial Times, James Politi (31/3/21)
- The Observer view on Joe Biden’s audacious spending plans
The Observer, editorial (11/4/21)
- Draw a Keynesian cross diagram to show the effect of an increase in benefits when the economy is operating below potential GDP.
- What determines the size of the benefits multiplier?
- Explain what is meant by the output gap. How might the pandemic and accompanying emergency health measures have affected the size of the output gap?
- How are expectations relevant to the effectiveness of the stimulus measures?
- What is likely to determine the proportion of the $1400 stimulus cheques that people spend?
- Distinguish between resource crowding out and financial crowding out. Is the fiscal stimulus package likely to result in either form of crowding out and, if so, what will determine by how much?
- What is the current monetary policy of the Fed? How is it likely to impact on the effectiveness of the fiscal stimulus?
In his March 2021 Budget, Rishi Sunak announced the setting up of eight freeports in England. These will be East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe & Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth and South Devon, Solent, Teesside and Thames. The locations were chosen after a bidding process. Some 30 areas applied and they were judged on various criteria, including economic benefits to poorer regions. Other freeports are due to be announced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish government is stressing their contribution to the green agenda and will call them ‘green ports’.
Unlike many countries, the UK in recent years chose not to have freeports. There are currently around 3500 freeports worldwide, There are around 80 in the EU, including the whole or part of Barcelona, Port of Bordeaux, Bremerhaven, Cadiz, Copenhagen, Gdansk, Luxembourg, Madeira, Malta, Plovdiv, Piraeus, Riga, Split, Trieste, Venice and Zagreb. The UK had freeports at Liverpool, Southampton, the Port of Tilbury, the Port of Sheerness and Prestwick Airport from 1984, but the government allowed their status to lapse in 2012.
Freeports are treated as ‘offshore’ areas, with goods being allowed into the areas tariff free. This enables raw materials and parts to be imported and made into finished or semi-finished products within the freeport area. At that stage they can either be imported to the rest of the country, at which point tariffs are applied, or they can be exported with no tariff being applied by the exporting country, only the receiving country as appropriate. This benefits companies within the freeport area as it simplifies the tariff system.
The new English freeports will provide additional benefits to companies, including reduced employers’ national insurance payments, reduced property taxes for newly acquired and existing land and buildings, 100% capital allowances whereby the full cost of investment in plant and machinery can be offset against taxable profits, and full business-rates relief for five years (see paragraph 2.115 in Budget 2021).
Benefits and costs
Freeport status will benefit the chosen areas, as it is likely to attract inward investment and provide employment. Many areas were thus keen to bid for freeport status. To the extent that there is a net increase in investment for the country, this will contribute to GDP growth.
But there is the question of how much net additional investment there will be. Critics argue that freeports can divert investment from areas without such status. Also, to the extent that investment is diverted rather than being new investment, this will reduce tax revenue to the government.
Then there is the question of whether such areas are in breach of international agreements. WTO rules forbid countries from directly subsidising exports. And the Brexit trade deal requires subsidies to be justified for reasons other than giving a trade advantage. If the UK failed to do so, the EU could impose tariffs on such goods to prevent unfair competition.
Also, there is the danger of tax evasion, money laundering and corruption encouraged by an absence of regulations and checks. Tight controls and thorough auditing by the government and local authorities will be necessary to counter this and prevent criminal activity and profits going abroad. Worried about these downsides of freeports, in January 2020 the EU tightened regulations governing freeports and took extra measures to clamp down on the growing level of corruption, tax evasion and criminal activity.