The Bank of England chief economist certainly put the cat among the pigeons with his speech on the British economy on Friday (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/speeches/2014/speech764.pdf). Andy Haldane was ‘off message’ from the story painted by his boss, the useless, confusing and grotesquely overpaid Mark Carney (see my post https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/a-blind-guide-dog). For months Carney has been going around hinting that the BoE would hike interest rates soon because the UK economy was booming and he wanted to control the racy property market and avoid rising inflation (instead inflation is now slowing fast!).
In contrast, Haldane says that he is “gloomier” about the prospects for the economy than he was a few months ago and thinks that rates will have to stay lower for longer. Now Haldane has ‘form’ in being off message and not following the banker’s line. He even spoke to the Occupy movement in the days of the crisis, suggesting that they had plenty of things to complain about and that the banking system was to blame and needed radical reform (see my post https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/the-value-of-banking-according-to-mark-carney-and-alan-greenspan/).
A little bit more on message was Haldane’s warning that Britain was vulnerable to another round of the Eurozone crisis. This is the line adopted by the UK’s conservative finance minister, George Osborne, who has already suggested any slump in Europe would be the excuse for the downturn in the so-called boom in the UK economy – forecast to be the fastest growing in the G7 this year (see my post, https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/draghis-answer-to-euro-depression/).
However, Haldane went off message again in his so-called Twin Peaks speech, when he outlined the fault-lines in the UK economy: falling real-wage growth and flat-lining productivity. On wages, Haldane was brutal: “Growth in real wages has been negative for all bar three of the past 74 months. The cumulative fall in real wages since their pre-recession peak is around 10%. As best we can tell, the length and depth of this fall is unprecedented since at least the mid-1800s! This has been a jobs-rich, but pay-poor, recovery.”
Haldane has constructed what he called his ‘agony index’: a simple index of real wages, real interest rates and productivity growth. In this blog, I have referred to a ‘misery index’, the sum of the unemployment rate and inflation, as an indicator of misery for the average household (https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/britains-misery-index/). But in an economy like the UK or the US, where unemployment and inflation have been falling but real wages have collapsed along with productivity and pension returns, Haldane’s agony index is way better. Haldane’s index shows that the British people and the economy have been in ‘agony’ for the longest time since the 1800s, with the exception of world wars and the early 1970s.
This is not the sort of thing that the government and Haldane’s boss, Carney, want to hear. But as Haldane said: “The BoE, in common with every other mainstream forecaster, has been forecasting sunshine tomorrow in every year since 2008 – that is, rising real wages, productivity and real interest rates. The heatwave has failed to materialise. The timing of the upturn has been repeatedly put back.” Instead it was a mixed picture of ‘twin peaks’ of agony for average households and ecstasy for richer ones.
To add to Haldane’s argument and refuting the line of the government that the British economy is on the road to sustained recovery and fast growth, official figures on productivity growth in the major economies since the Great Recession have been released. Output per hour in the UK was 17% below the average for the rest of the major G7 industrialised economies in 2013, the widest productivity gap since 1992. On an output per worker basis, UK productivity was 19% below the average for the rest of the G7 in 2013.
And it is getting worse. UK output per hour fell slightly in 2013 compared with 2012, contrasting with an increase of 1.0% across the rest of the G7. UK productivity levels are about the same as in 2007, but 15% below where they ought to be if pre-crisis productivity growth had continued.
And productivity growth matters if overall economic growth is to be sustained. Real GDP growth is a combination of employment growth and productivity growth (output per worker). Employment growth in the UK even with wholesale immigration (and that is going to stopped by a re-elected Tory government) is unlikely to be higher than 1% a year. So to achieve sustained 3% real GDP growth, the minimum necessary to get unemployment down further, reduce the budget deficit and government debt and start to raise real incomes, productivity growth must be at least 2% a year. But instead it is falling.
I have discussed the reason for these chronically bad productivity figures in previous posts (https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/britain-is-booming/). It’s been a combination of the growth of low value-added self-employment (taxi drivers, cleaners, odd jobbers etc), low skilled part-time, temporary and full-time jobs (Asda, McDonalds, Starbucks etc) and, above all, the lack of new investment in technology to boost the productivity of those working. UK business investment remains in the doldrums, while public sector investment has collapsed (see my post, https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/is-the-uks-investment-strike-over/).
What Haldane did not say was why there had been such the fall in real wages and a rise in his agony index. It’s because rather than investment to raise productivity, British capital has opted to squeeze wages and cut costs to try and restore profitability. You see, contrary to the view of neoclassical and Keynesian economics alike, productivity and profitability are not the same thing – indeed they are often contradictory.
Squeezing wages has boosted the rate of exploitation (and raised levels of inequality). But this has failed to raise UK profitability much.
The way to raise profits is by new labour-shedding technology that increases productivity and lowers costs. But British capital is reluctant to invest when it is still burdened with spare capacity in old technology and corporate debt. That needs to be liquidated first – in another slump. There is more agony to come yet.
PS a fuller version of this piece has just appeared in the Weekly Worker, http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1031/agony-and-the-ecstasy/