Tag Archives: productivity growth

Productivity Therapy

The IMF has sponsored another paper from staffers on the global productivity slowdown, with the catchy title “Gone with the Headwinds”. The paper reiterates many of the arguments concerning advanced economies referenced in this post, such as total factor productivity (TFP) hysteresis due to the boom-bust financial cycle and resulting capital misallocation, “an adverse feedback loop of weak aggregate demand, investment, and capital-embodied technological change”, elevated economic and policy uncertainty.

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Also cited are structural headwinds including a waning information and communication technology (ICT) boom, an aging workforce, slower human capital accumulation, and slowing global trade integration (including the maturing of China’s integration into world trade). An exhibit on the ICT trends from the report is reproduced below.

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The report highlights short term remedies such as boosting private sector demand, efficient spending on infrastructure, strengthening balance sheets, and reducing economic policy uncertainty. Longer term remedies cited include policies to boost technological progress, policies to mitigate the effects of aging, policies to encourage migration, advancing an open global trade system, exploiting policy synergies, structural reforms, raising the quantity and quality of human capital.

Now, how many of these remedies are likely to be pursued in the current populist political environment? Although Trump has shown signs recently of doing the opposite to what he fought the election on, overall it does look like we are merrily going down a policy dead-end for the next few years in important advanced economies. Hopefully the policy dead-end will be principally confined to the US and they wouldn’t take too long in figuring out the silliness of the current journey and the need to get back to trying to deal with the big issues intelligently. Then again….

Piddling Productivity

Walk around any office today and you will likely see staff on the internet or playing with their smartphones, the extent of which will depend upon the office etiquette. The rise of the networked society would intuitively imply increased productivity. Data analytics, the cloud, the ease with which items can be researched and purchased all imply a rise in efficiency and productivity. Or does it?

Productivity is about “working smarter” rather than “working harder” and it reflects our ability to produce more output by better combining inputs, owing to new ideas, technological innovations and business models. Productivity is critical to future growth. Has the rise of social media, knowing what your friends favourite type of guacamole is, made any difference to productivity? The statistics from recent years indicate the answer is no with the slowdown in productivity vexing economists with a multitude of recent opinion and papers on the topic. Stanley Fisher from the Fed stating in an interesting speech for earlier this month that “we simply do not know what will happen to productivity growth” and included the graph below in his presentation.

click to enlargeUS Average Productivity Growth 1952 to 2015

Martin Wolf in a piece in the FT on recent projections by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) calls the prospects for productivity “the most important uncertainty affecting economic prospects of the British people”.

Some think the productivity statistics have misestimated growth and the impact of technology (e.g. the amount of free online services). A recent paper from earlier this month by Fed and IMF employees Byrne, Fernald and Reinsdorf concluded that “we find little evidence that the slowdown arises from growing mismeasurement of the gains from innovation in IT-related goods and services”.

The good news seems to be that productivity slumps are far from unprecedented according to a paper in September last year from Eichengreen, Park and Shin. The bad news is that the authors conclude the current slump is widespread and evident in advanced countries like the U.S. and UK as well as in emerging markets in Latin America, Southeast Europe and Central Asia including China.

A fascinating paper from December 2015 by staff at the Bank of England called “Secular drivers of the global real interest rate” covers a wide range of issues which are impacting growth, including productivity growth. I am still trying to digest much of the paper but it does highlight many of the economists’ arguments on productivity.

One of those is Robert Gordon, who has a new bestseller out called “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”. Gordon has long championed the view of a stagnation in technology advances due to structural headwinds such as an educational plateau, income inequality and public indebtedness.

click to enlargeAverage Annual Total Facor Productivity

Others argue that productivity comes in waves and new technology often takes time to be fully integrated into the production process (e.g. electricity took 20 years before the benefits showed in labour productivity).

Clearly this is an important issue and one which deserves the current level of debate. Time will tell whether we are in a slump and will remain there or whether we are at the dawn of a golden era of innovation led productivity growth…..

Path of profits

The increase in corporate profits has been one of the factors behind the market run-up (as per posts such as here and here from last year). McKinsey have a new report out called “Playing to win: The new global competition for corporate profits” that predicts a decrease of the current rate of 10% of global GDP back to the 1980 level of below 8% by 2025.

Factors that McKinsey cite for the decline are that the impact of global labour arbitrage and falling interest rates have reached their limits. McKinsey also predict that competitive forces from 2 sources will drive down profits, as per the following extract:

“On one side is an enormous wave of companies based in emerging markets. The most prominent have been operating as industrial giants for decades, but over the past ten to 15 years, they have reached massive scale in their home markets. Now they are expanding globally, just as their predecessors from Japan and South Korea did before them. On the other side, high-tech firms are introducing new business models and striking into new sectors. And the tech (and tech-enabled) firms giants themselves are not the only threat. Powerful digital platforms such as Alibaba and Amazon serve as launching pads for thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises, giving them the reach and resources to challenge larger companies.”

Interesting graphs from the report included those below. One shows the factors contributing to the rise in US corporate profits, as below.

click to enlargeMGI Historical US Corporate Profit Components 1980 to 2013

Another graph shows the variability and median return on invested capital (ROIC) from US firms from 1964 to 2013, as below.

click to enlargeMGI Historical ROIC US Corporates 1964 to 2013

Another shows the reduction in labour inputs by country, as below.

click to enlargeMGI Labor Share of Total Income 1980 to 2012

Another shows the growth in corporate sales by region from 1980 to 2013, as below.

click to enlargeMGI Global Corporate Sales By Region

Another shows the ownership and the ROIC profile of the new competitors, as below.

click to enlargeMGI The New Competitors ownership split & ROIC by region

And finally the graph below shows McKinseys’ projections for EBITDA, EBIT, operating profit, and net income to 2025.

click to enlargeMGI Global Corporate Profits 1980 2013 2025