The UK’s poor productivity record

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.





  1. What features of the UK economic and political environment help to explain its poor productivity growth record?
  2. What are the arguments for and against making higher education more vocational?
  3. 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?
  4. How could the UK attract more inward foreign direct investment? Would the outcome be wholly desirable?
  5. What is the relationship between inequality and labour productivity?
  6. What are the arguments for and against encouraging more immigration in the current economic environment?
  7. Could smarter taxes ease the UK’s productivity crisis?