Special Report - Are we better off as laggards?

The Chancellor is obsessed with the productivity gap between Britain and other leading industrial na

As a sales pitch to woo those all-important inward investors to our shores, it was not one of Gordon Brown's best efforts. More Cassandra than Del Boy, he proclaimed: "Productivity levels in the US are 40 per cent higher than in Britain, and 20 per cent higher in Germany than here".

Worse, he didn't exactly keep quiet about this claim. Instead, alongside his Calvinist zeal for the "work ethic", Brown made the need for higher productivity into a mantra late last year. In November he launched a series of "productivity roadshows" and hosted confessional seminars at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury to spread the unhappy message. Rectifying Britain's laggardly performance will be a core theme of the March Budget.

But does Britain really need to pull its socks up as much as Brown says? Is there really still a huge productivity gap between us and our competitors, even after Thatcher's self-proclaimed "productivity miracle"?

Not everyone thinks so. Since Brown made this a big theme in his pre-Budget report last year - devoting 30 pages to it - a number of people have stepped forward to question his gloomy analysis. In a recent research paper, Lies, Damned Lies and Productivity Statistics, Graeme Leach, senior economist at the Institute of Directors, wrote: "Statistical deficiencies do not preclude the possibility that UK productivity levels are second only to the US. This seems unlikely, but is this caution merely the product of decades of doing Britain down in the media?"

Leach is not alone in questioning Brown's figures. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) have all produced papers doing so. The TUC report, Productivity and Partnership, for example, points out that the most recent studies of the productivity gap with the US offer estimates of between 7 and 40 per cent.

The basic squabble is over what kind of definition should be used. This may sound an arcane topic, suitable only for economic pointy-heads. But it matters because, as Leach says, "if the gap is more of a mirage, then the opportunity for a productivity miracle is undermined".

What exactly do we mean by productivity? Statistical definitions are a bit like balloon animals. You've either got your basic, crude shape - not very sophisticated. Or, with a bit of imagination and sleight of hand, you can turn your material into a far more impressive puppy.

And so it goes with productivity figures. The standard definition of productivity is output per worker. This is the figure the government uses. What this ignores, however, is exactly how many hours the worker was beavering away to produce those widgets. If, for example, it took one worker ten hours to produce a car, and another one five hours, the output would be the same, but it is easy to see that one worker was more productive than the other. Tweak the equation by sprinkling "hours worked" into it and the gap with the US magically shrinks from 40 to 20 per cent, because the average American worker puts in longer hours.

And with a bit more clever tweaking, such as that employed by Rachel Griffith and Helen Simpson of the IFS in their paper Productivity and the Role of Government, the gap shrinks to nearly zero. This is because they also factor in both the age of Britain's physical capital and its dodgy quality. Workers, it seems, can sometimes legitimately blame their tools for their poor productivity levels.

Why then does Brown persist in putting the worst possible spin on British performance? There are good and bad reasons for his doing so. Poor productivity offers a handy scapegoat for the recession now hitting manufacturing. Ministers were particularly keen last year to blame poor productivity rather than the high pound for the problems at Rover's Longbridge factory. Far better, too, to talk, as Peter Mandelson did, about linking potential government subsidy to assist the ailing factory to "productivity improvements", rather than convey the impression that the government was engaged in old-style bailouts to prop up inefficient industries.

Making an issue of poor productivity shows Brown in a macho light for focusing on a tough long-term agenda. "To caricature Brown, you could say, 'In my first Budget I solved the unemployment problem, in my second I dealt with work incentives and now, in my third, I will lick the productivity problem'," observes Peter Robinson, senior economist at the IPPR.

Highlighting a productivity problem helps to get the issue higher up the political agenda. Indeed, the Treasury itself implicitly acknowledges that the figure it cites is inflated. "We know and you know there are a number of ways of looking at this," said John Kingman, head of the Treasury's productivity panel, at an IFS conference last year. He added that the high figure acts as "a way of focusing minds on the need for further supply-side reform which seems to us to be desirable". The seminars and the roadshows all helped to "build a public perception that this was an important priority".

And so it should be. Although it is possible to explain away why Britain has worse levels of productivity (shorter average hours, or ageing equipment and so on) this does not mean that we should ignore Britain's relative decline. Higher productivity does matter because, as Brown puts it, it is the "key to the stronger economy - to higher growth, more jobs and opportunities, and better living standards for us all".

How do we get to this economic utopia? There are lots of different routes. Margaret Thatcher thought she had found one and talked boldly of a "productivity miracle" in the 1980s. And although Peter Mandelson has claimed that "productivity relative to our main competitors did not improve during the Tory years", there is a body of evidence that contradicts him. Britain did see a marked reduction in the productivity gap, particularly in manufacturing, after a time of slow productivity growth, and even some decline, during the 1970s.

"It is hard to say Britain didn't improve," says Nicholas Crafts, professor of economics at the London School of Economics. However, some of that improvement came at a price. "The revival in manufacturing productivity growth stemmed mostly from reductions in employment; output rose at only 1.2 per cent per year during 1979-89," wrote Crafts in Britain's Relative Economic Decline 1850-1995,published by the Social Market Foundation.

Despite these improvements, Britain's relative economic decline was stalled, not reversed. Worse, official estimates of manufacturing productivity growth suggest that since 1994 even this progress has stopped, with spartan growth since then. Adair Turner, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, argues: "The process of liberalising the economy in key ways, the productivity improvements in the privatised industries, labour market reforms and the relegitimisation of enterprise and business as key social values were all beneficial. So this government has to preserve them." But, he adds, "Thatcher's changes were probably a necessary but not sufficient condition for us to close the gap".

So what is still missing? For Turner there are two important elements. "Between 1979 and 1993 there were dramatic booms and busts. These are relevant to the productivity debate because in a more volatile macroeconomic environment it is more rational for businesses to focus on the short term."

The first way for Brown to help improve productivity, then, is to ensure that there is fiscal and monetary stability. "The more you strip out financial noise," argues Turner, "the more you can concentrate on the fundamentals." He suggests, however, that this stability may not be enough. "Does the pursuit of macroeconomic stability also require going into the euro? On balance I would say yes."

The second factor that Turner thinks significant is "the failure to grip the education system. We have a less skilled workforce compared with our major competitors. Therefore we need to focus on an education and skills agenda."

This kind of view, however, is dismissed by the McKinsey Global Institute, whose paper on British productivity helped jump-start the debate last year. It sees "low capital investment, poor skills and sub-scale operations" as merely secondary effects. Instead, McKinsey touts a neo-liberal agenda of ever more deregulation, arguing that the productivity gap is "the effect of regulations governing product markets and land use on competitive behaviour, investment and pricing".

Although this conclusion has been embraced by the Institute of Directors, there are not many others who subscribe to it. The Treasury's John Kingman says: "It [the McKinsey paper] was not something the government had commissioned and they have their own views. They are better on individual sectors than on the economy as a whole. They are more convincing at explaining the gap with the US instead of continental Europe."

The TUC has also duffed up McKinsey's findings. It points out that it is bizarre to say we are less productive than France and Germany because we are over-regulated. Those two economies, after all, are far more snarled up in red tape. The TUC argues that the real causes of poor performance are "under-investment, skill shortages and poor workplace relationships". While Britain was better at cost-cutting in the 1980s, Germany's higher labour productivity comes from a history of higher investments in human and physical capital.

The TUC is right to emphasise the need for higher levels of investment. However, its focus is still very much on improving manufacturing industry. Increasingly, experts recognise the crucial role of productivity in the service sector, which matters more than manufacturing, since the latter makes up only around a fifth of the overall economy.

Nicholas Crafts agrees that "we focus far too much on manufacturing. The lever for improving it is not necessarily the same as for services. It requires a different sort of human capital."

Mary O'Mahony, an economist at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, is one of the few people who has attempted to quantify rigorously how Britain compares in this area. It's not all doom and gloom. Based on her data she found that, in sectors such as mining, utilities and construction, British labour is more productive than its French, German, American and Japanese counterparts. Overall, however, she concludes that "Britain does not generally enjoy a comparative labour productivity advantage in service sectors".

Figuring out ways to measure, or even boost, productivity in services is tough because what you mean by "output" is tricky. School class sizes are a good example of this. You could argue that the government's commitment to smaller classes, made in its five pre-election pledges, is a commitment to lower productivity in education because there will be more teachers ("input") to each child ("output"). But shouldn't "output" in education be measured by results? And, if so, which results: more exam passes, higher literacy levels, lower delinquency rates?

Or take retailing, in which France is far more productive than Britain. This is partly because there is more land available to build whopping big hypermarkets on the edges of towns. And they offer poorer service levels than British stores. There are no bag packers or people in unfashionable garb offering to show you where to find muesli. The French may be more productive in retailing, but are they really "better"?

A similar dilemma faces the hotel industry. Is a hotel "better" because guests have to make their own coffee and carry their own luggage? And again it is easier for a hotel to be more productive on a greenfield site than on an older one simply because you can design it so that, say, the kitchen is near to the dining room. Both France (which has the same population as Britain but twice the land) and America have a highly productive hotel sector, partly because they have the room for new edge-of-town development. One survey found that, for new hotels in Britain, the break-even occupancy rate was 80 per cent, compared with just 50 per cent in America.

Should we then rip up our planning laws as part of an effort to squeeze more productivity out of hotels? Most people would say not. But different issues are raised by efforts to forge industrial clusters, such as a mini-Silicon Valley in Cambridge. In this case, people like Adair Turner would argue that it may be worth compromising social welfare and allowing development to proceed in order to boost hi-tech productivity. What matters, Turner explains, is whether the industry is one which could have "a cumulative dynamic effect" on the rest of the economy.

The existence of these potential trade-offs suggests that the government needs to be careful about over-hyping the importance of higher productivity. A big part of the political problem is that long-run productivity performance can have nasty side-effects in the short term. There are often good reasons to prefer lower productivity. As Nicholas Crafts sees it, "productivity is a benchmark for performance, instead of an objective in itself ".

The additional danger is that, as Britain faces an economic downturn, efforts to get short-term productivity improvements are more likely to involve job losses or tougher conditions for workers - as they did at Rover's Longbridge plant - than expansionary investment to sustain economic development.

Speaking at the launch of the CBI's Fit for the Future campaign, Turner acknowledged this prognosis when he said "we need to improve more than productivity. If we simply improve productivity we will create a high unemployment economy."

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

MILES COLE
Show Hide image

The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

***

In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt