The impact of technology – The Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Amazon has opened a shop in Seattle with no checkouts and customers who do not pay on leaving. Instead, with the appropriate app to link the shopping to an Amazon account, all that is needed is to go round the store, put items in a bag and scanners and sensors do the rest. After leaving the store, payment is debited from your account. There are no queues and no cashiers.  So successful has it proved that more have been opened. It already has three in Seattle and one in Chicago and plans ten by the end of 2018, 50 by the end of 2019 and, according to some press reports, 3,000 such shops within three years.

Electric cars have also been in the news over the summer, with a focus on how they will reduce the environmental damage from driving. What has been less well-publicised is their possible impact on the demand for workers in the factories of the future. Electric cars are easier to manufacture than current ones because their mechanism has fewer moving parts than the internal combustion engine. This means both that fewer workers will be needed and those on the manufacturing process will be less skilled, making it easier to outsource manufacture to other countries. However new technology in the motor industry could, potentially, have an even greater impact with the arrival of driverless vehicles. Uber is already looking into driverless taxis and black cab and white van drivers could become a distant memory in the same way that stokers on railways are no longer with us and blacksmiths are a rarity.

A robot is being developed, based on technology used in the NASA Rover to explore Mars, which will drive itself round battery chicken sheds, measuring the chickens by sight and checking their temperatures. This machine is likely to be popular if farmers face a shortage of labour after Brexit since they will replace human workers.

There is considerable dispute over the numbers and what the future will look like. Some suggest traditional, full-time jobs will decline and there will be an increase in remote working but overall, there will  be little impact on the number of jobs. Others argue that the impact will be positive, with new technology creating more jobs than are lost. They suggest there will be a much greater need for workers to develop, build and maintain the new technology and there will be some areas such as the care industry (growing because of an ageing population) where more human workers are likely to be needed to care for patients. McKinsey, a worldwide consultancy form,  recently predicted that robots will have the same impact on the global economy as the development of the steam engine, adding 1.2%pa to global growth by 2030.

A report by the World Economic Forum (The Future of Jobs, 2018), one of the more optimistic forecasters, has suggested that 42% of the world’s jobs will be done by machines by 2022, up from 29% today. It also estimates that although 75 million jobs will be lost by 2022, 133 million new jobs will be generated, resulting in an additional 58 million jobs. They see losses in administration, clerical, manufacturing, construction, legal, and maintenance sectors but increased demand for those in data analysis, management, computing, architecture, engineering, sales, education and training. Different numbers come from PWC, a worldwide firm of accountants, who predicted in July that about 7 million jobs will be lost by 2020 because of technology but 7.2 million will be created. They see losses in manufacturing, transport and public administration while the increases will occur in healthcare, science and technology and education.

Others are less optimistic. During the summer, Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, made the news by predicting that the impact of artificial intelligence could be more disruptive than previous industrial revolutions and would lead to widespread job losses. He argued that previously machines had replaced labour doing manual tasks whereas increasingly machines, because of developments in AI, are undertaking tasks previously thought to be beyond them. Mr Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, suggested that the latest industrial revolution would threaten 10% of jobs in the UK and, while some workers would benefit from being more productive and earning higher wages, others, losing their jobs,  would not easily be able to find employment providing a reasonable standard of living and would need to be able to access education and re-training throughout their lives.

However the big issue will be that the people filling the new jobs are unlikely to be those losing the old ones. How society copes with this will be a major issue for the future.

Advertisements

Productivity and the Economy

By definition, productivity is the measure of output per unit input. Inputs include labour and capital while output is typically measured in revenue. Between July and December data shows that output per hour rose by 1.7% – the fastest rise since 2005. However, part of the rise was due to the fact that the number of hours worked has fallen. Labour productivity grew by 0.7% in Quarter 4 2017 and it was the second quarterly increase in a row leaving productivity at 1.8% above its peak in Quarter 4 2007 (before the financial crisis). However, the output per worker and output per job only grew by 0.1% showing that there has been a fall in the average hours worked. The fall in average hours worked also suggests that workers incomes are stagnating and so due to inflation, their real incomes may be falling.

Productivity plays an important role in the economy as there are many benefits that come with higher productivity. If a firm is more productive, it will have lower costs of production as they are able to produce more goods and services in a set amount of time. This means that the firm can become more competitive, assuming ceteris paribus, the lower costs of production means that a firm can decrease their prices. This decrease in prices can lead to an increase in demand and mean that UK goods and services could become more competitive in global markets. This can also lead to an increase in revenue for the firms and so these can be reinvested back into the firm to make it even more productive. These benefits can also lead to economic growth as output increases due to higher productivity, which in turn brings benefits to the country. If workers are receiving higher wages – as they work the same hours to produce more output meaning that a firm’s costs of production lowers and so firms are able to afford wage increases – this can also cause a further shift outwards of AD due to the multiplier effect. If a worker receives a pay rise, he will then spend some of his extra income on goods and services and so this in turn increases AD.

So the big question that occurs is why is the productivity in the UK so low? It has been a question that is very hard to answer. New machines and technology can make workers more productive, however companies’ capital spending is only 5% above its pre-crisis peak, compared with a 60% increase over the decade after the 1980s recession. This could explain a reason as to why productivity in the UK has remained so low as workers haven’t got the capital they need to become more productive. Another reason that could have caused low productivity is that firms have been retaining relatively (unproductive) workers rather than investing in machines. Helen Miller from the Institute for Fiscal Studies commented that “changes to state pensions and benefits are likely to have contributed” showing that people have been more willing to work in this financial crisis compared to other recessions. Therefore, firms have avoided large costs by investing in machinery and have instead increased the number of workers in order to meet demand. This is supported by the fact that the UK now has the highest employment rate since 1971 at 75.3%. With real pay (after accounting for inflation) down 0.2% in 2017 compared to the same time in 2016 – it shows that it is easier for firms to increase workers due to a low wage demand as inflation is not at a high rate relative to wages. This means output becomes more labour intensive which often have a lower productivity.

The blog also mentions that the government imposed an apprenticeship levy, with the idea to increase skills and training workers receive and this can in turn increase their productivity – the workers can develop the skills needed to produce more goods/services in a set period of time. The scheme was introduced in 2015 and aims to create 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020. However, in January 2018 there were 25,400 apprentices in training compared to 36,700 a year earlier showing that the scheme may not be as effective. However, this is focusing on human capital rather than physical capital such as machines. In some industries, such as construction, it is easy to run an apprenticeship scheme and train labour but in the services industry it has proven much more difficult to provide apprenticeship training. This supports the idea that it is easier to increase and improve labour than capital as the government have focused on encouraging firms to increase apprenticeship programmes. In the long term it is more important to focus on increasing capital than it is labour. This is because as technology advances, capital becomes more advance and so it can aid workers to produce more goods/services in a set amount of time. It is also more important than an increase in skilled labour as if you increase capital – the worker can become more productive too and so produce more goods and services. However, an increase in skills doesn’t affect how productive the capital is and so there may be a limit to how productive a worker can be without an increase in the capital available to them. An increase or improvement of capital means that LRAS will shift outwards and the sustainable output of the economy will increase.

The UK productivity is only above one other G7 country. All of the other G7 countries have a higher GDP per hour worked than the UK. This is shown in the graph below. Here you can see that the UK is the second lowest country despite all being at the same rate in 2007. There has been a slow down in labour productivity in the G7 countries, however there seems to be a higher slowdown in the UK. The UK’s nominal productivity gap in output per worker terms narrowed from 16.9% in 2015 to 16.6% in 2016, compared with the average for the rest of the G7. Compared with the rest of the G7, the UK had below average real productivity growth in both output per hour and output per worker terms in 2016. The UK has the largest gap between pre-downturn productivity trend and post-downturn productivity performance was 15.6% in 2016 which is double the average of 8.7% across the rest of the G7. This shows that the UK has suffered a larger productivity problem compared to the other G7 countries.

 

Lower productivity levels are detrimental to the UK. If the economy remains unproductive, it will not be able to benefit from lower average costs (unless wages remain low) as firms won’t be able to produce as much as more productive firms in the same time period. This means that UK goods will be less competitive on a global market – due to that prices of UK goods will be higher as costs of production remain higher due to lower productivity. This could worsen the balance of payments as exports remain low, and result in lower Aggregate Demand as the balance of payments is one of the components. The higher priced goods are also bad for UK consumers as demand for goods and services will fall due to the high prices. This means that there will be little, if any, increase in output and employment as demand levels remain the same. Higher prices, and lower demand, will mean that businesses retain lower profit from sales. This means that they don’t have as much money to reinvest into the firm which could be spent on training or capital in order to become more productive. The government will also not receive an increase in tax receipts if productivity remains low, as firms will not be selling as many goods and services and so the amount of Value Added Tax and Corporation tax that they receive won’t change.

Low productivity also means that workers wages will not rise as much as the firms cannot increase wages due to a lower demand and profit. This also means that the government will receive less tax receipts from VAT and income tax. Economic growth is also impacted by low productivity. This is because without an increase in productivity the Long Run Aggregate Supply curve will not shift outwards and so the sustainable output for the economy will not increase.

So how is the economy doing?

This week has seen the publication of considerable economic data and much of it is contradictory, making it hard to tell exactly how well the UK economy is (or is not) doing.

In the year to March 2017, household spending in real terms returned to levels not seen since before the financial crisis, reaching £554 per week. The UK budget deficit has fallen and was £2.6bn in December, compared with £5.1bn in December 2016, and almost half economists’ expectations. This was partly due to higher than expected tax revenues from income tax receipts because of higher employment, higher VAT receipts and a refund on contributions to the EU. The positive news on the budget deficit means that government borrowing is likely to be at its lowest level since the financial crisis. Before celebrating too much, be aware, firstly, that the higher VAT receipts were due to higher inflation as well as to the growth in consumption and, secondly,  the refund from the EU was because the UK share of the EU budget has been revised downwards as a result of slower growth in the UK than the rest of the EU.

Another boost for the UK economy  was news that the employment rate had risen to a record high of 75.3% or 32.2 million, confounding forecasters who had predicted that the employment boom was over, based on the fall in October 2017 which is now being treated as a temporary fluctuation. At the same time as the employment level rose, the unemployment rate remained at 4.3% or 1.4 million, a 42-year record low. Equally encouraging was the shift from part-time work to full-time work which occurred over the period.

Further positive news  was that the economy grew at 0.5% in the last three months of 2017, faster than expected, largely because of the resilient service sector which makes up about 80% of the economy. As a result, growth last year was 1.8%, significantly higher than the 0.5% prediction by some disappointed economists following the Brexit vote. However, it is worth noting that the UK has dropped from being a growth leader to a laggard among the G7 countries, its growth rate is now at its lowest rate for the last five years and, given more rapidly rising incomes among our main trading partners, a slowdown in UK growth is disappointing.

On the downside, wage growth continues to be slow, meaning that real incomes are falling, the number of people starting apprenticeships fell by a quarter in the three months between August and October compared to last year, and sterling rose to its highest level since the Brexit vote. While this is good for importing businesses and holiday makers, it is less good news for exporters who have enjoyed the benefits of a low pound. It has also hit the share prices of companies with significant dollar earnings which are now worth less when converted into sterling.

Finally a word of caution; some of the figures, such as consumption spending, relate to the previous financial year while others, such as the growth in GDP, are subject to significant revision over time. Most recently, the figures for UK productivity have been questioned because the ONS might have significantly over-estimated inflation in the telecommunications industry and therefore underestimated the increases in its output. As a former Governor of the Bank of England pointed out, “trying to control the economy is like steering a car by looking in the rear view mirror”.