Saturday, February 5, 2011

Productivity, or a future paved with gold?

Economists are convinced our highest priority is to keep increasing our material standard of living as rapidly as possible. I'm not sure they're right. But if they are, we have a problem.

There are three ways for a country to get richer, to raise its real income (gross domestic product) per person. The first is to keep increasing the labour and physical capital being used to produce goods and services at a faster rate than the population is growing.

The second way is to be lucky enough to have the rest of the world pay us higher prices for the stuff we sell it.

The third way is to increase our productivity - to find ways of producing more goods and services each year from the same quantities of labour and capital. We achieve this mainly through technological advance.

Trouble is, we've got problems with two out of three of these - and the third can't last.

We used to have no trouble increasing the total number of hours we worked faster than the population was increasing, but the ageing of the population means we won't be able to keep this up.

Not to worry. The world is paying us more for the stuff we sell it, particularly our coal and iron ore. Hugely more. That's why we have been getting a lot richer for most of the past decade. Unemployment has been falling and wages and other incomes have been rising faster than prices.

But this is the bit that can't last. The prices we're getting for our exports of coal and iron ore can't keep rising from their present stratospheric heights. And sooner or later they will fall back to more reasonable levels.

Now, none of this would matter all that much if we were going OK on productivity improvement. Productivity improvement through continuous technological advance is actually the bedrock of material living standards, which in the developed countries have been rising continuously since the industrial revolution.

This is the magic of the capitalist system. Every year we get a little bit more efficient and a little bit richer. Only when you're as old as I am can you look back and realise that these days we're a lot smarter about the way we do things than we used to be.

But here's the problem: over the past decade there has been a dramatic deterioration in Australia's productivity performance, with the broadest measure of productivity actually getting worse over the past five years.

Why haven't you heard about this major reversal? Because its effect on our pockets has been concealed by all the extra income flowing in from China and our other trading partners. But that's what can't last.

This remarkably under-remarked story is revealed in a report issued this week by Saul Eslake and Marcus Walsh of the Grattan Institute, Australia's Productivity Challenge.

Eslake reminds us that, whereas in the 1990s real GDP grew at an average rate of 3.4 per cent a year, with improvement in the productivity of labour accounting for 60 per cent of that growth (2.1 percentage points a year), in the noughties GDP growth averaged 3.1 per cent a year, with labour productivity improvement accounting for only about 45 per cent (1.4 percentage points a year).

But it's actually worse than that because the average for the noughties conceals a steady decline over the course of the decade. Whereas the annual rate of improvement in labour productivity kept increasing over the '90s to reach a peak of 2.8 per cent a year during the five years ended 2001-02, since then it has slowed continuously, reaching a low of just 0.8 per cent during the five years ended 2008-09.

One way to increase the productivity of labour is to give workers more machines (physical capital) to work with. And we did a lot of that during the noughties.

So if we switch from looking at the productivity of labour to looking at the productivity of labour and capital combined (known as ''multi-factor productivity''), we find it has actually been going backwards since the mid-noughties.

Why haven't we heard a lot more about this remarkably poor performance (which, as you can see, began long before the Rudd government came to office)? Mainly because it has been concealed by the riches of the resources boom, but also because the econocrats have argued it's the product of special, temporary factors in a couple of sectors.

The mining sector, for example, has been spending on a huge expansion of its production capacity, but a lot of the extra production hasn't yet come on line. So, arithmetically, its productivity performance has been appalling.

Then if you look at utilities - electricity, gas and water - you find that, after neglecting to invest in increased production capacity to keep up with population growth, in the noughties governments have had to invest heavily (including in five new desalination plants), installing capacity that won't all be used until the population has grown further.

Finally, the output of the agricultural sector has been hard hit by drought over the past decade, wrecking its productivity figures.

The econocrats have argued that these three problem areas are sufficient to explain the deterioration in our productivity performance overall.

But Eslake disputes this, producing new figures to show there has been a substantial deterioration in overall labour productivity growth even when mining and utilities are excluded.

He argues ''it may be dangerously complacent to assume that the decline in productivity growth over the past decade will be automatically reversed at some point during the coming decade''.

So how does Eslake explain the decline? By the absence of further significant micro-economic reform during the noughties (compared with the big payoff from earlier reform during the second half of the '90s), but also by an increase in ''productivity-stifling legislation and regulation'', much of it in pursuit of ''national security'' (in the aftermath of the terrorism attacks on September 11, 2001) and improved standards of corporate governance (following a series of corporate scandals in the US and Australia).

But Eslake also blames the ''paradoxical downside of economic success''.

We have managed to keep the economy growing strongly for a record period since the recession of the early '90s, but this may have sapped our enthusiasm for further reform as well as permitting firms to be less vigilant in their pursuit of higher productivity. Finally, the return to near full employment permitted by the long expansion phase has led to productivity-reducing shortages of skilled labour and bottlenecks in transport and other infrastructure.