In various blogs, we’ve looked at the UK’s low productivity growth, both relative to other countries and relative to the pre-1998 financial crisis (see, for example, The UK productivity puzzle and Productivity should we be optimistic?). Productivity is what drives long-term economic growth as it determines potential GDP. If long-term growth is seen as desirable, then a fall in productivity represents a serious economic problem.
Recent data suggest that the problem, if anything, is worse than previously thought and does not seem to be getting better. Productivity is now some 21% below what it would have been had productivity growth continued at the rate experienced in the years before the financial crisis (see second chart below).
In its latest productivity statistics, the ONS reports that labour productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) fell by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2017. This follows a fall of 0.5% in quarter 1. Over the whole year to 2017 Q2, productivity fell by 0.3%.
Most other major developed countries have much higher productivity than the UK. In 2016, Italy’s productivity was 9.9% higher than the UK’s; the USA’s was 27.9%, France’s was 28.7% and Germany’s was 34.5% higher. What is more, their productivity has grown faster (see chart).
But what of the future? The Office for Budget responsibility publishes forecasts for productivity growth, but has consistently overestimated it. After predicting several times in the past that UK productivity growth would rise towards its pre-financial crisis trend of around 2% per year, in its October 2017 Forecast evaluation Report it recognises that this was too optimisitic and revises downwards its forecasts for productivity growth for 2017 and beyond.
As the period of historically weak productivity growth lengthens, it seems less plausible to assume that potential and actual productivity growth will recover over the medium term to the extent assumed in our most recent forecasts. Over the past five years, growth in output per hour has averaged 0.2 per cent. This looks set to be a better guide to productivity growth in 2017 than our March forecast of 1.6 per cent.
Looking further ahead, it no longer seems central to assume that productivity growth will recover to the 1.8 per cent we assumed in March 2017 within five years.
But why has productivity growth not returned to pre-crisis levels? There are five possible explanations.
The first is that there has been labour hoarding. But with companies hiring more workers, this is unlikely still to be true for most employers.
The second is that very low interest rates have allowed some low-productivity companies to survive, which might otherwise have been driven out of business.
The third is a reluctance of banks to lend for investment. After the financial crisis this was driven by the need for them to repair their balance sheets. Today, it may simply be greater risk aversion than before the financial crisis, especially with the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.
The fourth is a fall in firms’ desire to invest. Although investment has recovered somewhat from the years directly following the financial crisis, it is still lower than might be expected in an economy that is no longer is recession. Indeed, there has been a much slower investment recovery than occurred after previous recessions.
The fifth is greater flexibility in the labour market, which has subdued wages and has allowed firms to respond to higher demand by taking on more relatively low-productivity workers rather than having to invest in human capital or technology.
Whatever the explanation, the solution is for more investment in both technology and in physical and human capital, whether by the private or the public sector. The question is how to stimulate such investment.
UK productivity lagging well behind G7 peers – ONS Financial Times, Katie Martin (6/10/17)
UK productivity sees further fall BBC News (6/10/17)
UK resigned to endless productivity gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (10/10/17)
UK productivity estimates must be ‘significantly’ lowered, admits OBR The Guardian, Richard Partington and Phillip Inman (10/10/17)
UK productivity growth to remain sluggish, says OBR BBC News (10/10/17)
Official Treasury forecaster slashes UK productivity growth forecast, signalling hole in public finances for November Budget Independent, Ben Chu (10/10/17)
The Guardian view on Britain’s productive forces: they are not working The Guardian, Editorial (10/10/17)
Mind the productivity gap: the story behind sluggish earnings The Telegraph, Anna Isaac (26/10/17)
Data and statistical analysis
Labour productivity: April to June 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (6/10/17)
International comparisons of productivity ONS Dataset (6/10/17)
Forecast evaluation report OBR (October 2017)
- Explain the relationship between labour productivity and potential GDP.
- What is the relationship between actual growth in GDP and labour productivity?
- Why does the UK lag France and Germany more in output per hour than in output per worker, but the USA more in output per worker than in output per hour?
- Is there anything about the UK system of financing investment that results in lower investment than in other developed countries?
- Why are firms reluctant to invest?
- In what ways could public investment increase productivity?
- What measures would you recommend to encourage greater investment and why?
- How do expectations affect the growth in labour productivity?
During the 1970s, commentators often referred to the ‘political business cycle’. As William Nordhaus stated in a 1989 paper. “The theory of the political business cycle, which analyzes the interaction of political and economic systems, arose from the obvious facts of life that voters care about the economy while politicians care about power.”
In the past, politicians would use fiscal, and sometimes monetary, policies to manipulate aggregate demand so that the economy was growing strongly at the time of the next election. This often meant doing unpopular things in the first couple of years of office to allow for popular things, such as tax cuts and increased government transfers, as the next election approached. This tended to align the business cycle with the election cycle. The economy would slow in the early years of a parliament and expand rapidly towards the end.
To some extent, this has been the approach since 2010 of first the Coalition and now the Conservative governments. Cuts to government expenditure were made ‘in order to clear up the mess left by the previous government’. At the time it was hoped that, by the next election, the economy would be growing strongly again.
But in adopting a fiscal mandate, the current government could be doing the reverse of previous governments. George Osborne has set the target of a budget surplus by the final year of this parliament (2019–20) and has staked his reputation on achieving it.
The problem, as we saw in the blog, Hitting – or missing – the government’s self-imposed fiscal targets is that growth in the economy has slowed and this makes it more difficult to achieve the target of a budget surplus by 2019–20. Given that achieving this target is seen to be more important for his reputation for ‘sound management’ of the public finances than that the economy should be rapidly growing, it is likely that the Chancellor will be dampening aggregate demand in the run-up to the next election. Indeed, in the latest Budget, he announced that specific measures would be taken in 2019–20 to meet the target, including a further £3.5 billion of savings from departmental spending in 2019–20. In the meantime, however, taxes would be cut (such as increasing personal allowances and cutting business rates) and government spending in certain areas would be increased. As the OBR states:
Despite a weaker outlook for the economy and tax revenues, the Chancellor has announced a net tax cut and new spending commitments. But he remains on course for a £10 billion surplus in 2019–20, by rescheduling capital investment, promising other cuts in public services spending and shifting a one-off boost to corporation tax receipts into that year.
But many commentators have doubted that this will be enough to bring a surplus. Indeed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stated on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme said that “there’s only about a 50:50 shot that he’s going to get there. If things change again, if the OBR downgrades its forecasts again, I don’t think he will be able to get away with anything like this. I think he will be forced to put some proper tax increases in or possibly find yet further proper spending cuts”.
If that is the case, he will be further dampening the economy as the next election approaches. In other words, the government may be doing the reverse of what governments did in the past. Instead of boosting the economy to increase growth at election time, the government may feel forced to make further cuts in government expenditure and/or to raise taxes to meet the fiscal target of a budget surplus.
Budget 2016: George Osborne hits back at deficit critics BBC News (17/3/16)
George Osborne will have to break his own rules to win the next election Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (17/3/16)
Osborne Accused of Accounting Tricks to Meet Budget Surplus Goal Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell and Robert Hutton (16/3/16)
George Osborne warns more cuts may be needed to hit surplus target Financial Times, Jim Pickard (17/3/16)
6 charts that explain why George Osborne is about to make austerity even worse Independent, Hazel Sheffield (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: Osborne ‘has only 50-50 chance’ of hitting surplus target The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
How will Chancellor George Osborne reach his surplus? BBC News, Howard Mustoe (16/3/16)
Osborne’s fiscal illusion exposed as a house of credit cards The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
The Budget’s bottom line: taxes will rise and rise again The Telegraph, Allister Heath (17/3/16)
Reports, analysis and documents
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: documents HM Treasury (16/3/16)
Budget 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies (17/3/16)
- Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
- Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
- For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
- Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.
In the second part of this blog, we look at an interview with the Guardian given by Robert Chote, Chair of the UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility. Like Mervyn King’s, that we looked at in Part 1, Robert Chote’s predictions are also gloomy.
In particular, he argues that if Greece leaves the euro, the effects on the UK economy could be significant, not just in the short term, but in the long term too.
The concern is that you end up with an outcome in the eurozone that creates the same sort of structural difficulties in the financial system and in the economy that we saw in the past recession, and that that has consequences both for hitting economic activity in the economy, but also its underlying potential. And it’s the latter which has particular difficulties for the fiscal position, because it means not just that the economy weakens and then strengthens again – ie, it goes into a hole and comes out – but that you go down and you never quite get back up to where you started. And that has more lingering, long-term consequences for the public finances.
The interview looked not just at the effects of the current crisis in the eurozone on the eurozone, British and world economies, but also at a number of other issues, including: the reliability of forecasts and those of the OBR in particular; relations between the OBR and the Treasury; allowing the OBR to cost opposition policies; the economic effect of cutting the 50p top rate of income tax; the sustainability of public-sector pensions; and tax increases or spending cuts in the long term.
In Part 3 we look at attempts by the G8 countries to find a solution to the mounting crisis.
Robert Chote interview: ‘I would not say in the past there’s been rigging’ Guardian, Andrew Sparrow (18/5/12)
UK ‘may never fully recover’ if Greece exits euro Guardian, Andrew Sparrow, Helena Smith and Larry Elliott (18/5/12)
British economy may ‘never quite recover’ from a severe Euro collapse The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (18/5/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook Office for Budget Responsibility (March 2012)
- Why is it very difficult to forecast the effects of a Greek withdrawal from the euro?
- Why may Greek withdrawal have an effect on long-term potential output in the UK and the rest of Europe?
- Why are economic forecasts in general so unreliable? Does this mean that we should abandon economic forecasting?
- Why are public finances “likely to come under pressure over the longer term”?
- Why might the cut in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% have little impact on economic growth? Distinguish between income and substitution effects of the tax cut.
A crucial determinant of the economy’s short-term prospects is the appetite of households for spending. This is because household spending makes up roughly two-thirds of the total demand for firms’ goods and services or two-thirds of what economists refer to as aggregate demand. So what are the latest forecasts for consumer spending? We briefly consider the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility for consumer spending and, in doing so, update an earlier bog Gloomy prospects for spending in 2012?
In its March 2012 Economic and Fiscal Outlook the Office for Budget Responsibility presents it forecasts for economic growth and household spending. The following table summarises these forecasts.
OBR Forecasts (annual real percentage change)