The OBR needs to get it right on productivity

If our forecasts carry on being made on faulty assumptions the government will never learn.

The Office for Budget Responsibility is making a critical mistake in being excessively gloomy about a lack of productive potential in the UK since the 2007 crisis.

One of the characteristics of the recession has been how quickly employment levels have returned to pre-recession levels. The OBR interprets this as being a result of severe damage to the productive capacity of the economy. Any demand expansion through fiscal policy to stimulate growth would, in its opinion, quickly run into production bottlenecks and hence price increases rather than an increase in output. OBR estimates put spare capacity, the potential to meet any new demand, at below 3 per cent. The issue is, where's the firm evidence for this view?

Historically, the UK economy has always returned quickly to its underlying long-run trend in productivity growth following a recession, and there's nothing to suggest this pattern has changed. The OBR is simply being far too pessimistic. Based on the evidence from past trends, the current level of spare capacity is likely to be nearer to 12 per cent than 3 per cent, mostly in the form of underemployed labour. Employers have decided to hold onto workers rather than risk running down their workforce.

The OBR has powerful allies in its position on capacity from the Treasury and the Bank of England. So who's right? What can look like an academic detail around the nature of 'spare capacity' has a direct impact on the livelihoods of huge numbers of workers and their families. It's important that such powerful institutions take a closer look at why there is so much disagreement between experts.

The first step is to understand how the current recession differs from those in the past and the implications. The drop in output has been more severe and persisted far longer than all previous recessions in the past forty years. Output has still not reached its pre-recession level after five years and there is little chance of it doing so before 2015. At the same time, employment growth has confounded the forecasters. Employment fell by 600 thousand following the 2008 downturn but recovered to exceed its pre-recession level by 2012. Despite stagnant output growth, employment increased by 700 thousand (2 percentage points) between 2010 and 2012.

The overall increase in employment between 2010 and 2012 is not all that it seems at first sight. Firstly, more than half of the additional jobs have been for part-time, not full-time, workers. For women, nearly three-quarters of the extra jobs have been for part-time workers. Secondly, workers are not working as many hours as they would like. According to the Office for National Statistics, one in ten workers wanted to work more hours than they were offered during 2012; and between 2008 and 2012, the number of workers who wanted to work more hours increased by one million. Thirdly, there were half a million fewer full-time jobs in 2012 than at the start of the recession.

Employers are temporarily "hoarding" labour so that output can be increased more rapidly when demand recovers. They don't want to lose skilled and experienced workers; keeping workers on during periods of slack demand can help build morale and good relations; and laying workers off can be difficult and expensive. There is also, for example, no evidence of large-scale scrapping of plant and machinery as happened in the manufacturing sector during the recession of the early 1980s.

The likelihood that low productivity in the UK is a consequence of labour hoarding is supported by international trends. Employers in the USA are less reluctant to shed labour during recessions than UK employers. The drop in labour productivity following the financial crisis was consequently much smaller in the USA than in the UK despite a very similar drop in output. The German experience has been similar to the UK. Jobs were protected in the early part of the recession through government sponsored short-time working schemes. This resulted in a sharp drop in labour productivity and a rise in labour hoarding.

The OBR is surely wrong to assume there has been no growth in productive potential since 2007. This not only assumes that technological progress has come to a stop because of the recession, which seems most unlikely, but also denies the likelihood that productivity has been held down because of substantial labour hoarding. The existence of large amounts of spare capacity in the UK economy implies that a demand expansion could be achieved without any serious inflationary consequences. Even if the growth in productive capacity has not kept pace with its historical trend, a growth rate of only half the historical trend would still leave enough spare capacity to justify a demand injection in order to bring a quicker end to the recession.

It is surely the right time to get the economy moving forward again by financing much needed infrastructure projects and new housing developments. To do otherwise would be seriously wasteful and ongoing pessimism could lead to a withering of productive capacity over the longer term. It is high time the Treasury took some positive action instead of burying its head in the sand.

A trader sleeps at her desk. Photograph: Getty Images

Jim Taylor is an Emeritus Professor at Lancaster University Management School.

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6 times government ministers have contradicted each other over Brexit

Getting your line straight is slightly more complex than a moon landing. 

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Theresa May told Jeremy Paxman during the 2017 general election campaign. Almost exactly two months on, her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has declared the UK will seek a transitional deal that could last three years.

Hammond’s comments come a day after government ministers contradicted themselves over when free movement could end. “Strong and stable”, the Tory campaign slogan, has gone the way of Labour’s Ed Stone. 

Here’s a selection of times government ministers have contradicted each other over Brexit.

1. Free movement

Brandon Lewis vs Amber Rudd and Michael Gove

The immigration minister Brandon Lewis declared on 27 July that a new immigration system would be in place from the spring of 2019.

But his departmental boss, the home secretary Amber Rudd, said the same day that there would be an “implementation period” while the flow of EU workers continued and there would be no cliff edge.

Meanwhile, environment secretary Michael Gove and non-expert Brexiteer said days earlier that there was likely to be a transitional period where free movement continued for two years.

2. Chlorinated chicken

Michael Gove vs Liam Fox

One question emerging from discussion of a potential UK-US trade deal was whether chlorine-washed chicken would be allowed into British supermarkets. The international trade secretary Liam Fox said such chicken was “perfectly safe”.

He may not have been round to Michael Gove’s recently for dinner, then. The environment secretary said he opposed the import of chlorine-washed chicken and that “we are not going to dilute our high food-safety standards” in pursuit of “any trade deal”. 

3. Moon landings

David Davis vs Liam Fox

In June, Brexit secretary David Davis suggested the negotiations to leave the EU were more complicated than landing on the moon.

His fellow Brexiteer Liam Fox, on the other hand, said in July that a future UK-EU trade deal should be “the easiest in human history”. Then again, maybe he just has a different definition of easy.

4. Single market and customs union

David Davis vs Philip Hammond

Perhaps one reason the Brexit secretary is finding it so tricky is that on 27 June he told a conference he plans to leave the single market and customs union by March 2019

But the Chancellor, aka the Mopper Up of Economic Mess, stressed Britain was heading down a “smooth and orderly path”. 

5. EU army

Michael Fallon vs Boris Johnson

In 2016, fresh from a Leave campaign which warned of the dangers of an EU army, foreign secretary Boris Johnson voiced his support for… an EU army.

Defence secretary Michael Fallon, though, had previously said the UK would continue to resist any rival to Nato. 

6. The migration cap

Theresa May vs David Davis and Philip Hammond

As home secretary, Theresa May defended the net migration cap, an idea the Tories thought up while in opposition, even though in practice it was widely criticised and never met. Even though, according to the George Osborne-edited Evening Standard, none of her colleagues privately back the target, it has stayed under her premiership. 

Some ministers have publicly questioned it as well. As early as March, Davis said immigration might go up after the UK leaves the EU.  In June, Hammond said the system for businesses recruiting foreign workers would not be more “onerous” than it is at present. 

(You can see all the ministers in the Brexit government that have realised reducing immigration might be a problem for them here)

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.