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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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