Where did all the productivity go?

The ONS examines how employment is rising, even while GDP falls.

Joe Grice, chief economist of the ONS, released a report today that addresses the recent GDP-employment paradox.

As seen last week, employment has fallen by only 1 per cent since 2008, in spite of a 4 per cent drop in GDP over the same period. As the number of hours worked rises and output decreases, it can only be concluded that people are producing less per hour.

Output, Employment and Total Hours Worked

This stands in contrast with previous recessions, when productivity progressively increased. This has led economists, including the ONS, to probe into why this is happening.

Firstly, Grice suggests that this phenomenon could be linked to the growth of part-time and temporary jobs.

In particular, the author notes that the increase of part-time work to the detriment of full-time jobs has led to a smaller increase in hours worked than number of jobs would suggest.

Full-time and part-time employment (people aged 16 and over)

Permanent and temporary employees

The proposed hours-to-jobs ratio decline is seemingly confirmed by the rise of the proportion of people who are forced into part-time or temporary work for lack of full-time, permanent options.

Involuntary part-time and temporary workers as a proportion of total part-time and temporary workers

This, Grice notes, suggests that the UK market has adjusted to the recession by becoming more flexible.

There is also evidence to support the idea that companies have been reluctant to shed employees, in spite of the dip in output. The rise in real income has significantly slowed in the last ten years (in large part due to the wage adjustment resultant from a more flexible labour market), making it more affordable for companies to maintain staff levels.

Earnings growth, quarter on same quarter a year ago

Furthermore, as the cash flow for non-financial companies shows - unlike in previous recessions - firms have remained financially buoyant enough to retain employment.

Financial surplus/deficits of private non-financial companies

Finally, the report draws attention to the notable rise in self-employment, perhaps as a direct consequence of lay-offs. However, it is stressed that the exact effects of this rise on output and hours worked remain unclear. (I’ve been told by the ONS that a break-down of self-employment jobs by industry will be published from next month onwards – it’ll be interesting to see whether these "newly self-employed" are genuine entrepreneurs, people who are basically unemployed by another name, or just corporate attempts to dodge the statutory rights conferred to the elusive, and rather narrowly defined, "employee".)

Self Employment as a percentage of total employment

The report goes on to conclude that while the aforementioned reasons may play a significant part in explaining the mystery (further research is being done to confirm this), it is important to consider other issues.

For instance, some commentators have attributed the paradox to consistent under-reporting of GDP. However, the ONS admits that this is unlikely, as previous periodic assessments of GDP revisions haven’t shown any significant bias. Grice does concede that the survey data may be out of sync with GDP estimates, as the former can give information about future trends, while the latter are necessarily based on past tendencies. Nonetheless, some pundits believe that the GDP doesn’t reflect the strength of PAYE and/or tax receipts. But the report contends that the ratios do not seem abnormal:

Ratio of PAYE and VAT receipts to GDP

Moreover, when compared to productivity across Europe, the UK conundrum seems less puzzling. Registering the same trends as its continental counterparts, the drop in British productivity, argues the ONS, could very well be explained by common international factors.

International comparisons of productivity (Real labour productivity per hour)

Following reports by the OECD and IMF, the ONS speculates that the financial crisis may have altered the UK’s productive potential. While acknowledging that there were many forces at work during the crisis, Grice points to a few main factors that may have contributed to the current recession’s exceptionalism.

Firstly, the author argues that "over-exuberant financial intermediation" led to the investment of resources in activities with poor returns. It is argued that as a consequence, we are now left to deal with shoddy machinery and poorly trained individuals. Secondly, due to the drop in financial intermediation after the crisis, firms lost access to financing that would boost productivity. Finally, the report states that because the risk premium increased so significantly after the crisis, existing capital stock was rendered unviable because it was unable to generate the required return at the higher rate.

The ONS concludes that all the aforementioned explanations are likely to play a role in explaining the dip in productivity, and that each one warrants further, extensive research.

A journalist sleeps at his desk. But falling productivity doesn't mean lazy workers. Photograph: Getty Images
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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.