A regular feature of economic analysis in the credit crunch era has been where has the productivity growth gone? The knee-jerk reaction from establishment economists was as usual to assume that reality was wrong and their models correct and so they assumed that it would rise even faster in the future to make up the gap. For example back in June 2010 the hapless UK Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that UK productivity growth would have recovered such that wage growth would have been be running at above 4% since 2013/14. Problem solved! Except that only in their Ivory Towers did such a solution work as below the clouds the situation changed little if at all.
To my mind it is the last 3 years or so that have really illustrated the issue as we have seen the official measure of economic growth rise on a sustained basis. On that measure the recovery has become mature and one would therefore have hoped that productivity growth would have picked up and risen noticeably. So it is especially troubling that we find ourselves wondering what happened to it right now. Even worse if this week’s Markit business surveys indicate a new trend of slowing economic growth.
The establishment could not ignore it for ever
Half way through 2014 someone at the Bank of England must have decided that enough was enough and that maybe something had changed.
Since the onset of the 2007–08 financial crisis, labour productivity in the United Kingdom has been exceptionally weak. Despite some modest improvements in 2013, whole-economy output per hour remains around 16% below the level implied by its pre-crisis trend………This shortfall is sometimes referred to as the ‘UK productivity puzzle’,
Indeed the comparison with past recessions was stark.
Even six years after the initial downturn, the level of productivity lies around 4% below its pre-crisis peak, in contrast to the level of output, which has broadly recovered to its pre-crisis level.
However the response of the establishment followed a disappointing theme as another hapless body gave us Forward Guidance on productivity.
A key judgement in the May 2014 Inflation Report is for productivity growth to pick up.
We can skip the cyclical arguments presented back then as we have cycled on so to speak but there were issues raised then partially dismissed which do apply.
Growth rates in output per hour have been persistently weaker than GDP, reflecting strong employment growth over the past few years.
This reflects two factors in my view. Firstly ( and the Bank of England either forgot or redacted this) is that for years and indeed decades economists in the UK had wanted us to be more like Germany and keep more workers employed when a recession hits. The other has been an increase in supply of labour as more people have moved to the UK to find work. This is a politicaly charged issue and the Bank of England tip-toed around it.
In addition, it may be that the financial crisis led to an increase in labour supply in the United Kingdom.
But they have to face up to some of the consequences.
The crisis is likely to have reduced both current real incomes and expected future labour incomes, which may have encouraged more people to seek work and participate in the labour market.
In other words the labour supply curve shifted downwards as labour became cheaper and more of it was used. On that road there was less pressure to improve productivity as wages were lower. You may also note that right up to now we have been discussing weak wage growth and the establishment continues to expect a turn higher at every turn.
Output per individual
The Bank of England tried to shuffle past this issue but I think it matters a lot because there are strong hints of an issue from the GDP per head numbers.
GDP is now 7.3% above its pre-downturn peak and has been growing for 13 consecutive quarters.
We know that the population has grown however so that GDP per head is lower. If we look at the boom phase since 2013 then this has continued with GDP growth being 8.3% but per head only 5.2%.
The Office for National Statistics has been listening to this debate and offered some views on Wednesday and today.
Administrative and support service activities has grown by the largest amount, with a growth rate of 22.3% for the 4 year period, closely followed by professional, scientific and technical activities at 19.1%.
Okay so they have been the leaders so who are the laggards?
production industries made up 3 of the 5 slowest growing industries. One production industry – electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply – was one of only two industries to experience negative growth across the four-year period.
I think that the recent mild winter may be a factor in the energy supply industry as it has high fixed costs but it is revealing that it is another area where production has been struggling. Shakespeare was ahead of the game with his point that troubles like this come in “battalions” rather than “single spies”.
Oh and I wonder if those calculating the numbers have overrepresented their own productivity!
However, administration and support service activities features toward the top end of both distributions,
It has had another go this morning and confined itself to the market-sector of the economy.
These estimates also suggest that lower capital service per hour worked and weaker than normal improvements in labour quality held back productivity growth in 2014.
So 2014 was a bit better but still below past experience. I was pleased that such numbers exclude matters such as imputed rent and see that as a success for my arguments and campaigns.
The Services Problem
This is the issue of how we measure this and it is twofold. Firstly there is the problem that many services are intangible and thus output measures are problematic. The other is that some gains here are from products which are in effect free but GDP measurements need a price (that is not zero). For example it is only anecdotal but a friend told me last week that Linkedin and Facebook were very useful for his business but he only used the free versions. So his productivity was in his opinion higher but our national accounts cannot measure it.
Back in 2014 an effort was made but it was vague. At least Price Waterhouse had a go.
Total revenues for the five most prominent sharing economy sectors – peer-to-peer (P2P) finance, online staffing, P2P accommodation, car sharing and music/video streaming – could rise to around £9 billion in the UK by 2025, up from just £0.5 billion today, according to new analysis by PwC.
Professor Diane Coyle has been looking into this and suggested some numbers to give us an idea of scale.
it is highly likely that more than a million people are providing services via these platforms. This is equivalent to about 3% of the workforce, although many or most of them probably do not regard this as employment in the conventional sense.
We wonder what is employment quite regularly on here of course. But it is missed also by the productivity numbers.
The debate about the UK’s productivity performance should take account of the fact that the sharing economy acts as a kind of technological progress, equivalent to increasing the amount of capital available in the economy. But this effect is not recorded in the measured statistics and productivity.
Actually as she points out it may even reduce it as things which are measured are replaced by things which are not measured.
At times of large structural change there are always going to be issues for official statistics. We have seen and indeed are seeing three large moves at one. The credit crunch blitzed some sectors and sent the whole economy into reverse. The official response has been to try to pump up sectors such as housing and banking. Meanwhile there has been enormous change in technology and the virtual world which we are often missed by the old ways of measurement.
Thus we need ch-ch-changes but the initial problem is the way that we have become wedded to GDP as a measure. Or to be more precise it would as a beginning be helpful if the UK returned to publishing more openly the three different GDP measures adding Income and Expenditure to Output. Why? Well the income figures from the US have added value but when I tried to get similar data for the UK I was told that Nigel Lawson scrapped much of it as I guess it “frightened the horses” to coin a phrase. Yet as Diane Coyle points out something seems to be happening.
In the past, the statistical discrepancy was of the order of £1bn, and more recently £2-3bn.. In 2014 it reached an extraordinary £9bn.
We can do much more to get data from the online world using so-called big data and web scraping. This will not give us a complete answer but it will be better and I believe there will be more cheer in it than the official data we get now. As the sun is out let’s have a little optimism and hope it will wean our establishment off pumping up the housing market.
Turn and face the strange
Oh, look out you rock ‘n’ rollers
Turn and face the strange (David Bowie)