Category Archives: Labour productivity

17/4/16: Start Ups, Manufacturing Jobs and Structural Changes in the U.S. Economy

In the forthcoming issue of the Cayman Financial Review I am focusing on the topic of the declining labour productivity in the advanced economies - a worrying trend that has been established since just prior to the onset of the Global Financial Crisis. Another trend, not highlighted by me previously in any detail, but related to the productivity slowdown is the ongoing secular relocation of employment from manufacturing to services. However, the plight of this shift in the U.S. workforce has been centre stage in the U.S. Presidential debates recently (see

An interesting recent paper on the topic, titled “The Role of Start-Ups in Structural Transformation” by Robert C. Dent, Fatih Karahan, Benjamin Pugsley, and Ayşegül Şahin (Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Reports, no. 762, January 2016) sheds some light on the ongoing employment shift.

Per authors, “The U.S. economy has been going through a striking structural transformation—the secular reallocation of employment across sectors—over the past several decades. Most notably, the employment share of manufacturing has declined substantially, matched by an increase in the share of services. Despite a large literature studying the causes and consequences of structural transformation, little is known about the dynamics of reallocation of labor from one sector to the other.”

“There are several margins through which a sector could grow and shrink relative to the rest of the economy”:

  1. “…Differences in growth and survival rates of firms across sectors could cause sectoral reallocation of employment”
  2. “…differences in sectors' firm age distribution could affect reallocation since firm age is an important determinant of growth or survival behavior” 
  3. “…the allocation of employment at the entry stage which we refer to as the entry margin could contribute to the gradual shift of employment from one sector to the other.”
  4. “…because the speed at which differences in entry patterns are reflected in employment shares depends on the aggregate entry rate, changes in the latter could affect the extent of structural transformation.”

Factors (1) and (2) above are referenced as “life cycle margins”.

The study “dynamically decomposed the joint evolution of employment across firm age and sector”, focusing on three sectors: manufacturing, retail trade, and services.

Based on data from the Longitudinal Business Database (LBD) and Business Dynamic Statistics (BDS), the authors found that “…at least 50 percent of employment reallocation since 1987 has occurred along the entry margin.” In other words, most of changes in manufacturing jobs ratio to total jobs ratio in the U.S. economy can be accounted for by new firms creation being concentrated outside manufacturing sectors.

Furthermore, “85 percent of the decline in manufacturing employment share is predictable from the average life cycle dynamics and the early 1980s distribution of startup employment across sectors. Further changes over time in the distribution of startup employment away from manufacturing, while having a relatively small effect on manufacturing where entry is less important, explain almost one-third of the increase in the services employment share.”

Again, changed nature of entrepreneurship, as well as in the survival rate of new firms created in the services sector, act as the main determinants of the jobs re-allocation across sectors.

Interestingly, the authors found “…little role for the year-to-year variation in incumbent behavior conditional on firm age in explaining long-term sectoral reallocation.” So legacy firms have little impact on decline in manufacturing sector jobs share, which is not consistent with the commonly advanced thesis that outsourcing of American jobs abroad is the main cause of losses of manufacturing sector jobs share in the economy.

Lastly, the study found that “…a 30-year decline in overall entry (which we refer to as the startup deficit) has a small but growing effect of dampening sectoral reallocation through the entry margin.”

These are pretty striking results.

The idea that the U.S. manufacturing (in terms of the sector importance in the economy and employment) is either in a decline or on a rebound is not as straight forward as some political debates in the U.S. suggest.

Reality is: in order to reverse or at least arrest the decades-long decline of manufacturing jobs fortunes in America, the U.S. needs to boost dramatically capex in the sector, as well as shift the sector toward greater reliance on human capital-complementary technologies. It is a process that combines automation with more design- and specialist/on-specification manufacturing-centric trends, a process that is likely to see accelerated decline in lower skills manufacturing jobs before establishing (hopefully) a rising trend for highly skilled manufacturing jobs.

24/11/15: Europe’s Dead Donkey of Productivity Growth

Remember the mythology of European productivity miracles:

  1. The EU is at least as competitive as the U.S. (with Lisbon Agenda completed, or rather abandoned);
  2. The EU growth in productivity is structural in nature (i.e. not driven by capital acquisition alone and not subject to cost of capital effects); and
  3. The EU productivity growth is driven by harmonising momentum (common markets etc) at a policy level, with the Euro, allegedly, producing strong positive effects on productivity growth.
Take a look at this chart from Robert J. Gordon's presentation at a recent conference:
The following observations are warranted:
  • EU convergence toward U.S. levels of productivity pre-dates major policy harmonisation drives in Europe and pre-dates, strongly, the creation of the Euro;
  • EU productivity convergence never achieved parity with the U.S.;
  • EU productivity convergence was not sustained from the late 1990s peak on;
  • The only period of improved productivity in the EU since the start of the new millennium was associated with assets bubble period (interest rates and credit supply).
Darn ugly!

But it gets worse. Since the crisis, the EU has implemented, allegedly and reportedly, a menu of 'structural' reforms aiming at improving competitiveness.  Which means that at least since the end of the crisis, we should be seeing improved productivity growth differentials between Europe and the U.S. And the EU case for productivity growth resumption is supported by the massive, deeper than the U.S., jobs destruction during the crisis that took out a large cohort of, supposedly, less productive workers, thereby improving the remainder of the workforce levels of productivity.

Here is a chart from the work by John Van Reenen of LSE:

Apparently, none of this happened:
  • EU structural reforms have been associated (to-date) with much lower productivity growth post-crisis than the U.S. and Japan;
  • EU jobs destruction during the crisis has been associated with lower productivity increases than in the U.S. and Japan;
  • All EU programmes to support growth in productivity, ranging from the R&D supports to investment funding for productivity-linked structural projects have produced... err... the worst outcome for productivity growth compared to the U.S. and Japan.
And the end result?

I know, I know... a Genuine Productivity Union, anyone?...

15/6/15: Euro Area Labour Productivity: It’s Low and Lagging

Euro area's problem in one chart? Might sound like a bit of an over-simplification, but here is a summary of labour productivity index simply constructed as real GDP per employee:

The chart shows several facts:

  1. Euro area labour productivity is currently low, despite massive uplift in unemployment (which should have increased output per employee more substantially).
  2. Euro area labour productivity has grown faster than that in the U.S. in the period of 1986-1995, but has been growing at a slower rate for some twenty years now.
  3. Post-2010, euro area productivity has been lagging all groups of advanced economies.
Now, remember, no one talks as much about carrying out labour markets reforms as euro area leadership. In a way, this might be warranted, given poor performance, but in a way it also might suggest that the reforms are not working. After all, since the start of the Great Recession, allegedly, we had plenty of these reforms, and we had a 'productivity-enhancing' rise in unemployment, reduction in labour force and wages moderations galore. And productivity is not really expanding much. Secular stagnation, anyone?