Does the UK really have a productivity problem?

Money money money. Image: Getty.

Productivity – or the UK’s lack of it – is the cause of the country’s economic woes. We have been told this by countless politicians and commentators. And the focus on Britain’s “productivity puzzle” is back in the headlines thanks to the latest budget. The UK’s latest productivity and growth forecasts have been slashed, such that the leading IFS think tank now predicts two decades of no earnings growth.

A similar story tends to be recycled every time growth forecasts change or data comparing the G7 countries or regions within the UK is released. Phrases like: “It takes a German worker four days to produce what a British one does in five.”

But how is productivity the cause of the UK’s problems and what does this statement actually mean? Unfortunately very little, because the term is used inconsistently. There are different measures of productivity and the nature of the UK’s problem depends on which one we are looking at and how it is being used.

Different definitions

At its base, productivity is a measure of output over input. The most commonly used measure of output is value-added. Literally the value added to goods and services produced in the UK, calculated as the monetary difference between what is sold and the intermediate goods used in its production.

The most commonly reported input is the number of workers or worker-hours. When combined this gives us a measure of labour productivity, calculated for each industry and aggregated for a region or the whole economy.

So far, so good. However, there are some more crucial distinctions, depending upon how labour productivity is used.

If we compare the performance of the UK with other countries or that of London with other parts of the UK, this requires making the comparison at the same point in time. In this case national statistical offices use current price measures of value-added. They use prices in each country at the point of comparison, converted into a common currency (usually US dollars) and adjusted for what these can buy in each place. This is called purchasing power parity or PPP.

Hence, what we are saying when we say that London is more productive than Carlisle in the north of England or that the UK is less productive than Germany, is that the value-added at current prices produced per hour worked in those places (what economists would call nominal productivity) is different. This is likely to depend largely upon the activities that are being performed in each place.

If some highly lucrative activities are concentrated in one part of the country – say financial and professional services in London – or within a country – think of complex manufacturing across Germany – then this will strongly influence the current price productivity data. The fact that the UK lags behind other countries on this measure reflects what goods and services it produces and the prices it can command for them versus what it has to pay for intermediate inputs.

So some of what the UK produces may be attributable to the skills of workers – but clearly the UK has wider historical issues regarding the types of industry it has and the geographical diversity of its economy. It is misleading to label this a productivity problem.


Skills and efficiency

A second way that labour productivity is used is to chart its change or growth over time. This calculation involves fixing prices at some point in time and calculating the change in the quantity of output produced to give a real measure of value-added. Hence if real labour productivity is increasing at 3 per cent per year, a country is producing 3 per cent more actual goods and services per hour worked than it was before, independent of price changes.

It is this calculation that is reflected in the growth of the economy and increases living standards. It is often interpreted as a measure of the increasing efficiency of workers but we must bear in mind that how work is organised, what equipment workers have, how skilled and well-trained they are and how close to capacity the economy is operating will all affect this measure. Also, certain industries have greater propensity for automation, which is central to increasing productivity.

Unfortunately, since the financial crisis productivity growth across the G7 has been much lower than it was prior to it – which has raised questions regarding how realistic prior measurement was, particularly in financial services, and whether the world has entered an era of slower technological progress. The UK’s productivity fall was steeper and its rebound weaker than in comparison countries.

The ConversationThis might be due to a number of reasons: low capital investment, poor skills, the high employment rate and low interest rates keeping inefficient companies afloat. No single explanation is currently winning the day. I would, however, urge readers to think about which measure of productivity is being used and what it means the next time we are told that the UK’s economic woes are due to poor productivity.

Paul Lewis, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Joe Anderson: Why I resigned from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Liverpool Lime Street station, 2008. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool has a few choice words for Chris Grayling.

I resigned from the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership this week. I just didn’t see the point of continuing when it is now crystal clear the government isn’t committed to delivering the step-change in rail investment in the North that we so desperately need. Without it, the Northern Powerhouse will remain a pipedream.

Local government leaders like me have been left standing at the altar for the past three years. The research is done. The case has been made. Time and again we’ve been told to be patient – the money is coming.

Well, we’ve waited long enough.

The only thing left is for the transport secretary to come up with the cash. I’m not holding my breath, so I’m getting on with my day job.

There’s a broader point here. Rail policy has been like a roller-coaster in recent years. It soars and loops, twisting and turning, without a clear, committed trajectory. There is no consistency – or fairness. When London makes the case for Crossrail, it’s green-lit. When we make the same case for HS3 – linking the key Northern cities – we are left in Whitehall limbo.

Just look at the last week. First we had the protracted resignation of Sir Terry Morgan as Chairman of HS2 Ltd. Just when we need to see firm leadership and focus we have instead been offered confusion and division. His successor, Allan Cooke, said that HS2 Ltd is “working to deliver” services from London to Birmingham – the first phase of the line – from 2026, “in line with the targeted delivery date”. (“In line?”)

Just when HS2 finally looked like a done deal, we have another change at the top and promises about delivery are sounding vaguer. Rumours of delays and cost over-runs abound.

Some would like to see the case for HS2 lose out to HS3, the cross-Pennine east-west line. This is a bit like asking which part of a train is more important: its engine, or its wheels. We need both HS2 and HS3. We are currently left trying to build the fourth industrial revolution on infrastructure from the first.

If we are ever to equip our country with the ability to meet rising customer and freight demand, improve connectivity between our major conurbations and deliver the vision of the Northern Powerhouse, then we need the key infrastructure in place to do that.


There are no shortcuts. Ministers clearly believe there are. The second piece of disappointing news is that officials at the Department for Transport have already confirmed to the freight industry that any HS3 line will not be electrified, the Yorkshire Post reports.

This is a classic false economy. The renaissance of the Liverpool Dockside – now called Superport – is undergoing a £1bn investment, enabling it to service 95 per cent  of the world’s largest container ships, opening up faster supply chain transit for at least 50 per cent  of the existing UK container market. Why squander this immense opportunity with a cut-price rail system?

Without the proper infrastructure, the North of England will never fulfil its potential, leaving our economy lop-sided and under-utilised for another generation. This is not provincial jealousy. Building a rail network that’s fit for purpose for both passenger and freight will remove millions of car journeys from the road and make our national economy more productive. It will also be cleaner, cheaper and more reliable. Our European neighbours have long understood the catalytic effect of proper connectivity between cities.

Similarly, linking together towns and key cities across the North of England is a massive prize that will boost growth, create jobs and provide a counterweight to Greater London, easing pressures on the capital and building resilience into our national economy.

To realise this vision, we need the finance and political commitment. Confirmation that the government is pushing ahead with HS3 – as well as HS2 – is now sorely needed.

With Brexit looming and all the uncertainly it brings in its wake, it is even more pressing to have clarity around long-term investment decisions about our critical infrastructure. Given the investment, the North will seize the chance.

But until ministers are serious, I have a city to run.

Joe Anderson is the elected Labour mayor of Liverpool.