Consumer, pay, jobs in The Monday Briefing
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Economists of all stripes would agree that investment and the application of technology drive economic activity. For decades governments around the world have made strenuous efforts to encourage investment and new technologies. Last year this orthodoxy came under fire from an unexpected source.
In an interview with Quartz Bill Gates made the case for taxing robots at the same rate as human workers: “Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
This is a radical idea, the more so coming from someone whose fabulous wealth came from Windows, a technology which transformed the nature of work. So what is the rationale for introducing a robot tax now?
It would be hard to imagine life without mortgage and consumer credit.
Mortgages have extended home-ownership beyond the ranks of those on high incomes or with large amounts of capital. Credit has helped bring other major purchases, such as a new car or a kitchen, within the reach of most households. For the wider economy there are benefits too, since access to credit helps keep households going when incomes are under pressure.
The summer months tend to be pretty thin for media coverage of economics and finance. Like the rest of us, journalists take their holidays in July and August. Yet economics is no respecter of holidays and events and data have continued to pile up.
Britain’s recent record on growing productivity and wages has been lacklustre. In the UK GDP per hour worked, the main measure of productivity, has risen by just 2.2% since 2010, less than a third the rate seen in Germany.
UK activity has softened since the vote to leave the EU. The UK slowdown has been pronounced, though less severe than widely predicted on the eve of the referendum, and has left the UK slowing into a global recovery.
In the last decade Britain and the US have experienced an unusual combination of soaring asset prices and sluggish wage growth.
Between 2006 and 2016, the total value of assets held by UK households rose by 59% while average incomes increased by just 24%.
Last month Deloitte’s economists from across the world met in London to assess the outlook for the global economy. It was a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion. Rather than trying to summarise individual views, here are some of the areas where the discussions affected my own thinking.
The global recovery has moved up a gear in the last year. The year 2018 is likely to be the best year for world growth in seven years. But this is a mature recovery and, at the risk of sounding like a kill joy, this is about the time you’d expect the economic cycle to start rolling over. For the rich western economies the second half of 2018 is likely to mark the peak in growth.
There are numerous explanations for why technology is no longer boosting productivity in the way it did in the twentieth century. The US economist, Robert Gordon, argues that today’s technologies are less productivity-enhancing than the great inventions of the past. The opposing view is that technology is still working its magic, but in ways, such as improving the quality of goods and services, which are poorly captured by the statistics.
The latest Deloitte survey of UK Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) released this morning shows that business confidence has edged up and is running not far off its long-term average. CFOs seem to have shrugged off weakness in equity markets and concerns about trade with perceptions of uncertainty dropping to the lowest levels since the spring of 2016, before the EU referendum. This finding fits with our own “Worry Index” which tracks newspaper references to terms relating to uncertainty and risk. It dropped to a ten-year low in the first quarter.