Friday, 22 July 2016

Pseudo Say's law and the secret of George Osborne's jobs record

All political careers, it's often said, end in failure. But this never stops departing politicians from putting a gloss on their own professional obituaries.

When earlier this week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published strong headline figures for the UK employment rate (which in the March-May quarter reached yet another record high of 74.4%), the unemployment rate (down to an 11 year low of 4.9%) and the economically inactive rate (now at a record low of 21.6% for people of working age) former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was quick to draw attention to the 2.5 million net jobs created during his six year stint at HM Treasury. Yet while Mr Osborne is fully entitled to highlight why many economists, myself included, underestimated the speed and strength of private sector job growth since 2010, I'm not sure he can, or maybe even should, take much credit for this.

The so-called 'jobs miracle' of recent years is attributable to the cumulative effect of a combination of supply side measures introduced over three decades by successive Conservative and Labour Governments, which Mr Osborne inherited. These range from employment deregulation to active welfare to work measures and a largely open door attitude to immigration. UK employment policy has over time succeeded in pushing an ever greater supply of labour into the market and ensured that that supply is translated into employment. This occurs either through workers pricing themselves into jobs or becoming self-employed, or by employers creating jobs to make use of the abundance of labour available.

The UK labour market mechanism thus operates on the basis of a kind of pseudo Say's Law whereby labour supply serves to create its own labour demand. However, while this will always tend to propel the economy toward full employment, in the absence of sufficient aggregate demand for goods and services it does so by making the economy more labour intensive, thereby depressing growth in productivity and real wages. The result is full-employment but of a kind far different from that we once aspired to.

What does this mean for how we should view Mr Osborne's jobs record? It's not entirely clear what if any supply side policy changes Mr Osborne, or indeed the governments in which he served, made to improving the functioning of the labour market. My conclusion is that the jobs growth we have seen is entirely due to policy measures which pre-dated his tenure in office. What Mr Osborne did of course preside over was 6 years of steady, albeit slower than expected, fiscal consolidation - the policy his critics call 'the economics of austerity'. How successful the former Chancellor was at that is for historians to determine but one can say that in dampening aggregate demand in the economy he served to take us on a low-productivity, low real wage growth, path to full-employment.  We could, and should, have done better.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Thoughts on the effects of Brexit on UK unemployment and the labour market

Earlier today I participated in a plenary panel session of the Learning & Work Institute’s IntoWork Convention 2016 on the broad subject of what Brexit might mean for the UK labour market and employment policy. Here is a write-up of the issues considered during my brief opening comments:

I broke my ankle a month or so before the EU Referendum vote.

The experience provides a suitable metaphor for Brexit – initial pain and trauma followed by a prolonged period of hobbling along at slower than usual pace plus considerable uncertainty about whether in due course things will ever again be as good as if the break hadn’t happened.

Translated into economic jargon, Brexit is a supply side shock to the economy with probable negative short-term to medium term demand side effects on output and at present indeterminate but probably negative effects on the potential long-term growth rate.  

The short-term – recession and higher unemployment

Looking first at the initial trauma, there is a fair amount of consensus about the nature if not the exact magnitude of the short-run economic impact. The initial source of pain is due to a combination of uncertainty about the future and the associated adverse effect this has on both business and consumer confidence. Lack of confidence in turn affects willingness to hold sterling and is also likely to cause borrowing costs to rise if lenders impose higher risk premiums on loans.

The value of the £ has already suffered a sharp drop, providing a stimulus to exports but at the same time set to raise import prices which will eventually hit real household incomes with knock-on effects to consumer spending.

Alongside this there will at best be a temporary pause in business investment while businesses assess the progress and type of post-Brexit institutional arrangements and trade deals negotiated with the EU and other countries.

It is probable that the combined negative effects on domestic demand will to some extent be offset by various forms of stimulatory policy action by the Bank of England. But monetary policy is a blunt instrument at times when economic confidence is low and might therefore need to be supported by active fiscal policy intervention of a kind eschewed during the era of austerity and ‘small government’ ideology that has prevailed since 2010.

The Government has already wisely abandoned the idea of introducing a contractionary emergency budget of spending cuts and tax hikes and accepted that it will now take longer than previously intended to eliminate the fiscal deficit. Whoever is Chancellor of the Exchequer in the incoming May administration should be wiser still and open to introducing an expansionary budget of tax cuts and higher targeted public investment once the Office for Budget Responsibility has had an opportunity to assess the economic and fiscal outlook in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.    

Nonetheless, even with suitable policy interventions, a sharp slowdown in short-term economic growth is widely thought to be inevitable, with many economists, myself included, expecting this to include a period of outright recession – i.e. at least two successive quarters of falling output – at some point in the next 12 to 18 months.

However, although Brexit amounts to a significant shock to the UK economy (with compounding knock-on effects to the EU and wider global economy) the consensus view expects the effect of this ‘home grown’ Brexit economic downturn to only be around a third as severe as that caused by the global financial crisis in 2008/9.

As for the short-run impact on the labour market, a crucial factor will be the effect of Brexit on employer psychology, which might exaggerate negative short-run decision making on hiring and firing.

Official data already show some sign of a slowdown in hiring activity in the run-up to the referendum debate, with further independent evidence suggesting a substantial drop in hiring activity immediately following the vote to leave.

But despite limited initial reports of employers shifting either work or staff from the UK to other EU locations, there is nothing as yet to suggest employers are cutting jobs albeit it is far too early to be sanguine about this.    

Some may recall the aftermath of the £’s ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in autumn 1992. Although this in fact provided a welcome stimulus to the economy, it initially triggered the biggest ever single quarterly shake-out of jobs since World War II, greater than anything that occurred in the recessions of the early 1980s, at the start of 1990, or the end of the 2000s. Such a response is not beyond the realm of possibility in the next six months.

In this respect, of course, optimists will take comfort from what happened following the financial crisis of 2008 which saw the fall in demand for labour diffused between a rise in unemployment, falling or stable nominal wages compounding the effect of higher price inflation on real wages, plus increased underemployment and a shift towards insecure work for employees and self-employed.

As a result, while the degree of economic pain inflicted on the UK workforce proved as great as economist’s expected, unemployment peaked at a lower than expected rate, limiting the amount of psychological pain experienced.

Yet it is perhaps naïve to expect such a relatively benign outcome for jobs in any post-Brexit recession since some of the parameters of employer decision making have changed in more recent years.

For example, the Coalition Government substantially relaxed the law on unfair dismissal, this decision by former Business Secretary Sir Vince Cable now making it easier and cheaper for employers to fire staff during economic downturns.

Similarly, the weakness of productivity growth in the past decade shows that the economy is to some extent ‘overstaffed’ and potentially vulnerable to a swift bout of restructuring and downsizing.

Moreover, the climate of wage setting may prove different in a post-Brexit recession, with significantly more workers protected by the National Living Wage – which puts a limit on downward wage flexibility – and others perhaps less than willing to undergo a further prolonged period of voluntary wage restraint.

Overall, therefore my expectation is that the post-Brexit recession, while less severe than the 2008/9 recession, will be proportionately less job friendly, pushing the aggregate level of unemployment back above 2 million within the next 2-3 years.         

The long-term – slower real wage growth

It should be stressed that a rise in unemployment of around 0.5 million would be far from catastrophic when viewed in UK historical perspective, thus making it more than manageable in policy terms, albeit it will be important for those with influence over such matters to press the case for immediate additional investment in both Jobcentre Plus services and welfare to work programmes.

Assuming programme expenditure is sufficient to prevent a rise in long-duration unemployment, the labour market will over time adjust to reduce unemployment to the pre-Brexit rate. In other words, Brexit will not lead to a permanently higher rate of structural unemployment.

However, it is virtually impossible to assess how long the adjustment will take, or at present to judge what the job structure and sustainable level of real wages might look like once the post-Brexit economy has returned to full employment.

The crucial and as yet unknown factors in this respect are what post-Brexit trade arrangements will mean for investment, immigration and employment regulation.

The consensus view of economists at present points either toward an unfavourable form of Brexit arrangement in terms of access to the EU single market which lowers the overall volume of trade and investment - dampening long-term growth in productivity and real wages – or a favourable form of Brexit arrangement but one that has little impact on immigration, which while beneficial on average to productivity might also have a dampening effect on growth in real wages for less skilled workers.

The type of Brexit arrangement secured will also determine the extent to which the UK is free to set its own regime of employment regulation. 

Given that the UK labour market is already lightly regulated by the standard of developed economies it seems unlikely that even an extreme right wing government with free rein would gain popular support for a widespread bonfire of employment rights, although some watering down of regulations on matters such as working time and the rights of temporary agency workers might be feasible. Action on the latter could serve to lower the UK’s rate of structural unemployment post-Brexit but at the risk of further entrenching forms of employment practice that already foster a large segment of low-productivity, low wage and insecure jobs.   

Making the best of a bad break

Views clearly differ on the efficacy of Brexit. It is possible that the overwhelming majority of economists who worry about the short and long-term consequences are wrong and that the future for the UK outside the EU will be one of even greater prosperity.

For the time being, however, I remain firmly on the side of the pessimists and expect Brexit to heighten the pain of unemployment in the next few years and from then on limit the improvement in living standards that would otherwise have been achieved.

A sensible policy response will help ease the pain of adjustment and help us to cope as best as possible with future challenges, but this will nonetheless amount to making the best of a bad (and sadly self-inflicted) break.    
         

  

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Skills mismatch, job quality and the productivity puzzle

The UK’s very poor recent trend productivity performance features prominently in debate following yesterday’s Budget, with pessimism over prospects for improvement a key reason for downward revisions to GDP growth forecasts. The so-called ‘productivity puzzle’ continues to exercise the minds of economists and has yet to solved. But some insights might be gleaned from figures just released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimating the extent of skills mismatch in the UK labour market i.e. the proportion of people either overeducated or undereducated for the jobs they are doing.

The ONS has looked at how well the level of educational attainment of people in work matches with the average educational attainment of the occupation they are employed in. Mismatch is an indicator of how efficiently labour is allocated within the economy, which will in turn affect productivity since people will perform best in jobs suited to their skills.  

By the end of 2015 just over two thirds (68.7%) of people of working age (16-64) were considered matched to their employment. Of the remainder who were mismatched (ostensibly ‘in the wrong job’) 16.1% were overeducated and 15.1% undereducated.

Over time (the ONS look at the period Q2 2002 to Q4 2015) the match rate has generally been on upward trend but found to fluctuate. The rate peaked prior to the recession, fell during the recession, recovered to just above the pre-recession peak by the end of 2012, and then fell again to the end of 2015 figure of 68.7%. In other words, mismatch was on the increase during much of the jobs boom of recent years, which we also know was a time of generally poor growth in labour productivity. Moreover, while by the end of 2015 the under-education rate was around 1.5 percentage points below the pre-recession high the over-education rate was around 2 percentage points above the pre-recession low.

Put together, these figures show that while the UK labour market serves to match the vast majority of people to the ‘right job’ in terms of their education the dominant trend is that toward a higher rate of over-education. This is worrying and suggests the UK is underusing an increasing proportion of available talent, with women and people in part-time jobs in particular employed in occupations for which they are overeducated. When one acknowledges waste of available talent on this scale it’s no wonder UK productivity performance is struggling to improve.

Be clear, however. The response to over-education should be intensified policy efforts to increase demand for skills and promote better quality jobs. The response should not be to cut the supply of high level skills to the labour market, for example as advocated by commentators who think the UK is nowadays producing ‘too many graduates.’ A high productivity economy needs both better jobs and more highly educated workers.    


Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Pace of UK jobs market recovery slows ahead of ‘quarter of uncertainty’ for businesses

It’s Budget day in the UK so less focus than usual on the latest official labour market numbers published earlier this morning by the Office for National Statistics (mostly covering the three months to January 2016). Good news on jobs will doubtless get at least a passing reference from Chancellor George Osborne in his statement to the House of Commons, helping to offset what’s likely to be somewhat less upbeat news from the Office for Budget Responsibility on the overall economic and fiscal outlook. However, the Chancellor would be advised to highlight the general trend of the jobs market over the past year rather than dwell on the most recent figures.  

While the UK labour market remains healthy the pace of the jobs recovery has slowed a little with both the latest rise in employment (up 116,000) and the fall in unemployment (down 28,000) smaller than in recent quarters. Moreover, the number of job vacancies has also dipped slightly (down 10,000 to 768,000 in the three months to February 2016) and although the rate of growth of regular average weekly earnings has picked up from 2% to 2.2% in nominal terms real average weekly earnings growth is little changed at 2% (up from 1.9%). Taken together these figures could indicate that employers are becoming more cautious over hiring decisions as they approach what will be a ‘quarter of uncertainty’ for the economy, including the introduction of the National Living Wage at the start of April and the EU referendum toward the end of June.


Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Latest official numbers show record UK employment remains a mixed blessing for economy

Economic growth may have slowed in the final quarter of last year but, as the Office for National Statistics informed us earlier today,  this didn’t prevent a further big quarterly rise in employment of 205,000 (0.7%), almost all full time, split roughly equally between employees and self-employed people. This helped keep the unemployment rate steady at 5.1% - the number of jobless people actively seeking work fell by 60,000 but 88,000 previously economically inactive people of working age entered the labour market while the overall economically active population (aka the total labour supply, including people above working age and migrants) increased by 145,000.
Despite the good news on jobs the juxtaposition of another record setting quarter for the working age employment rate (which has now reached 74.1%) and somewhat softer economic growth suggests deterioration in the UK’s already dire underlying labour productivity performance (though we won’t have figures to confirm this until later in the year).. This, along with strong growth in the active labour supply enabling employers to fill most job vacancies without too much difficulty, helps explain why average weekly earnings excluding bonuses are still rising at an annual rate of only 2%.
For the time being low consumer price inflation is protecting workers from the consequences of weakness in UK productivity and pay. But we face a rude awakening on jobs and real living standards once the price level starts accelerating at a more normal pace (i,e, moves back toward the Bank of England’s target rate of 2% CPI inflation) and/or if economic growth slows more sharply than forecasters at present expect.   



Wednesday, 20 January 2016

UK unemployment falls to decade low rate of 5.1% but rate of annual regular pay growth falls below 2% - we need to rethink what we mean by ‘tight labour market’

We’ve just had the latest official UK jobs market figures from the Office for National Statistics. This is the first set of 2016, though the data mostly cover the three months September to November of last year. And the picture is broadly in line with the recent trend.

Employment continues to very grow strongly, with 267,000 (+0.9%) more people in work compared with the previous quarter. Employees account for 60% of the latest quarterly increase, full-time employees for 42%. The overall rise takes the total number of people in work to 31.39 million, lifting the working age employment rate to 74%, higher than at any time since comparable records began in 1971. Unemployment meanwhile is down 99,000 on the previous quarter, to 1.675 million, alongside a fall of 93,000 (to 8.92 million) in the number of economically inactive people of working age.

The unemployment rate (5.1%) is now lower than at any time for a decade but still not triggering higher wage pressure. Indeed the rate of annual nominal pay growth has slowed again (down to 1.9% excluding bonuses, which is the best measure of underlying pay pressure). This suggests that the rate of unemployment consistent with the Bank of England’s 2% inflation target has fallen significantly over time; a generation ago most economists reckoned this so-called sustainable unemployment rate was around 10%. Consequently we need to rethink what we mean by a ‘tight labour market’.

Some commentators continue to talk as if the labour market is already very tight, citing indicators such as unfilled job vacancies (currently standing at around 750,000) and employers’ reports of mounting skills shortages. The implication is that the Bank of England ought to be considering raising interest rates sooner rather than later, notwithstanding caution induced by the state of the global economy as highlighted only yesterday by the Bank’s at present dovish Governor Mark Carney. But the pay data simply don’t support a hawkish view. Unemployment may now have to fall to a very low rate, perhaps below 4%, before we see strong upward pressure on pay. For the time being the labour market isn’t tight, just recovering. Monetary policy should support this not stymie it.


Wednesday, 16 December 2015

It’s ‘payja vu’ in the UK labour market

This is one of those days when the eyes of most economic commentators will be fixed on what the United States Federal Reserve decides to do to the interest rate rather than the latest UK job market figures. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, mostly covering the three months August to October 2015, nonetheless provide another twist in the tale of the labour market trend on this side of the Atlantic.

After a brief hiatus in the spring, the UK jobs boom is clearly back in full swing with (according to the household Labour Force Survey) 207,000 (+0.7%) more people in work compared with the previous quarter and 505,000 (+1.6%) more than a year earlier. On an annual basis employment of employees increased in percentage terms by 1.9%, somewhat more than self-employment 1.6%. Within these totals, in percentage terms part-time employment (+2%) increased by more than full-time employment (1.5%). At the sector level, construction recorded by far the largest annual increase in jobs (+111,000 or 5.3%) in a big employment sector.

The ONS’s alternative quarterly Workforce Jobs series, mostly based on a survey of employers, offers a slightly different but broadly consistent picture of job growth of 1.2% in the year to September 2015. The ONS also finds that in the year to September private sector employment increased by 2.2% while public sector employment fell by 1.1%.  

The rise in LFS employment takes the total number in work to 31.30 million and the working age employment rate to 73.9%. Both the latter are new records but less noteworthy this month than two other landmark figures. First, total hours worked each week in the economy have topped 1 billion for the first time ever. Second, unemployment has at last returned to the pre-recession rate of 5.2%. Yet after a period of much better news on pay, the rate of average regular weekly wage growth (i.e. excluding bonuses) for employees has fallen sharply to just 2% in the year to October, down from 2.4% in the year to September. The slowdown is particularly marked in the private sector (down from 2.8% to 2.3%), the rate in the public sector actually rising slightly (up from 1.2% to 1.3%). The ONS notes that the drop in the overall figure reflects a high single month growth rate for July of 2.9% falling out of the latest three month average and being replaced by a much lower single month growth rate of 1.7% for October.  

There is thus a palpable sense of what a punster might call ‘payja vu’ in the UK labour market at present, a reminder of the initial phase of the economic recovery characterized by a jobs boom alongside weak productivity and pay growth. What’s most surprising it that for all the talk of mounting skills shortages employers in most sectors (with the exception of construction where very strong job growth has pushed wage growth well above 6%) appear perfectly capable of hiring at will without having to hike pay rates. This will please jobseekers and Bank of England interest rate setters even though it means employees are now enjoying real wage gains only because almost zero consumer price inflation is nowhere near the Monetary Policy Committee’s target rate of 2%.