Power to the workers

Monday Briefing City
The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, recently lamented Britain’s “first lost decade” since “Karl Marx was scribbling in the British Library” in the 1860s. He was referring to the fact that wage growth for the average British worker has stagnated in the decade since the financial crisis.

Last year earnings for the median worker in the UK, the person in the middle of the wage distribution, were almost 7% below their pre-recession level in real terms. The latest official forecast shows that real earnings are unlikely to return to pre-recession levels until 2021.

The recent weakness of real earnings has exacerbated the much longer-running shrinkage of labour’s share of GDP. Since the early 1970s the share of GDP paid in wages has fallen, while the share going to profits has risen.

Similar forces have been at work in the US. Between 1973 and 2014 earnings for the median US worker rose by just 0.2% a year compared to annual productivity growth of 1.3%. Productivity growth has translated into good increases in profits but only small gains in middle earners’ incomes.

Many factors have operated to weaken wages. Employers have responded to sub-par growth by cutting costs and bolstering cash reserves, leaving them less able to raise pay. Economic uncertainty has weakened employee bargaining power and has made people less willing to seek better paid-jobs elsewhere.

The Resolution Foundation reports that young British workers have prioritised job security over pay increases. Just 1 in 25 ‘millennials’ (those born in the mid-1980s) have moved jobs before reaching the age of 30, about half the rate for those who were born a decade before (‘Generation X’). These workers have been forgoing the typical 15% pay rise those in their mid-20s can expect from changing jobs.

On the supply side sharply higher rates of inward migration into the UK since the turn of the century may have added to the downward pressure on pay. Of the 3.5 million new jobs created in the UK since 2004, 83%, or 3.0 million, have gone to workers born outside the UK.

But after a long squeeze on wages the balance of power may be starting to tilt back from capital to labour.

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Posted on 20/03/2017

In praise of prosaic innovation

Monday Briefing small cogs
Societies become richer by producing more goods and services from a fixed amount of labour and other inputs. The history of human material progress is the history of ever greater efficiency in production.

Since the financial crisis that process seems to have broken down. Productivity growth has slowed and, for many, wages have stagnated. Across the Western world policymakers and politicians are searching for ways of raising productivity growth.

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Posted on 13/03/2017

Of Blackberrys, pineapples and trade

Monday Briefing
Free trade helped power a dramatic rise in living standards in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the last three decades it has had a similar impact on the welfare of billions of people in emerging economies.

Yet in the face of a backlash against globalisation, free trade is arguably more at risk than at any time since the 1930s. Those who want to limit trade see it as a way of “bringing home” high-quality jobs and reinvigorating industry.

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Posted on 06/03/2017

What voters think

Monday Briefing population circle
The polarisation of politics in the Western world has created new challenges to existing political norms. Declining support for established political parties has been paralleled by a growth of alternative, more extreme, parties and politicians. This week we take a look at what voters in the US, UK and Europe are telling pollsters on the big issues.

Mr Trump won a remarkable victory, but he entered office with an approval rating of 45%, a record low for an incoming US President. His rating now stands at 40% compared with an average of 61% for previous Presidents at this stage in their administration.

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Posted on 27/02/2017

Africa’s demographic dividend

Monday Briefing Africa
History has often illustrated the power of the maxim, coined by the French socialist thinker, Auguste Comte, that “Demography is destiny”. The post war baby boom helped drive growth in Europe and North America through the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s Asia enjoyed similar, population-driven, gains.

History also shows that Comte’s dictum could, more accurately, but less elegantly, be rendered as, “Demography and policy are destiny”. To realize the potential of an expanding population a country needs to invest in education and infrastructure, and to have sound government.

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Posted on 20/02/2017

Thoughts on living with uncertainty

MB Broadcast
Switch on the TV news, follow Twitter or read a paper and it can feel like we are living in an era of high, perhaps unprecedented, uncertainty.

We certainly seem, over time, to have become more aware of uncertainty. Since the 1940s references in English language books to uncertainty, volatility, complexity and ambiguity have soared. The term Chief Risk Officer did not exist before the mid-1990s. Now CROs are an established part of many large companies. In the 1990s the US army War College coined the term VUCA in to describe an apparently new world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

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Posted on 13/02/2017

Brexit fears ease

MB Maze light
Last week two of the UK’s leading economic forecasters concluded that Brexit is unlikely to cause a sharp slowdown in UK growth over the next three years. This is big news.

Last summer, in the weeks after the referendum, talk of the UK falling into recession was rife. Economists slashed their UK growth forecasts. By August economists expected GDP growth would fall away in the second half of 2016 as Brexit hit home. They saw the UK eking out meagre growth of 0.6% in 2017, the slowest since the recession in 2009.

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Posted on 06/02/2017

The surprising decline of inequality in the UK

Monday Briefing people
Inequality in incomes is a hot topic across the industrial world. Although the global recovery is in its eighth year in most rich countries the gap between higher and low incomes has widened.

A conspicuous exception is the UK. I was surprised to learn that take-home incomes for those in the bottom 20% of incomes have risen faster than for those in the top 20% in the last ten years.

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Posted on 30/01/2017

Who made money in 2016

Monday Briefing
The performance of financial markets provides signals about the state of the global economy. Market movements in part reflect shifting expectations about growth, inflation and risk. The messages from markets are fallible. But unlike economists’ forecasts, the positions investors take are backed by real money.

So who made money in financial markets in 2016 and what does it imply for the global economy?

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Posted on 23/01/2017

Europe in search of direction

Monday Briefing choice
The Brexit vote has set the UK on a new path. The form Brexit takes will take time, possibly years, to emerge. But there is another, and for me, more fundamental question facing Europe.

2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the foundation of the European Union. Its founding principle was progress to “ever closer union”.  Today, amid challenges created by low growth, migration, the growth of insurgent political parties and Brexit, this principle is in question as never before. 

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Posted on 16/01/2017

2017 Year-Ahead Outlook

MB compass
The global recovery is entering its eighth year – sufficiently long for some commentators to suggest that we are due for another recession. That seems premature. 2017 looks likely to be another year of growth for the global economy, and at a rather faster rate than in 2016.

But this is not likely to be the year in which growth finally breaks through, returning to the heady rates seen in the decade before the financial crisis. In other words, activity is likely to remain close to the lower, so-called New Normal levels seen since 2009.

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Posted on 09/01/2017