Friday, November 16, 2012

Consumptivity, not productivity

Economic growth worldwide is on a decline. Economists have been attributing this to the declining productivity which itself is a reflection of the much reduced impact of the new economy's technological advancement as compared to that of the earlier technology waves. Robert J. Gordon, an economics professor from Northwestern University, has produced a paper tracing the economic growth since 1300 (the two charts on the left below, reproduced by The Financial Times) as well as evidence of the declining US productivity (the two charts on the right).

This is typical of an economics professor pontificating from on high. There's actually nothing wrong with the rate of technological progress.  We know that productivity is the ratio of output to input. Economists can't explain why output declines or increases for the same level of input. To them, the link between input and output is a black box. But implicit in that link is the little known assumption that whatever can be produced will be consumed.

If only the economists had worked in a manufacturing setup, they would learn that a factory's main problem was not producing but selling. No production planner would produce goods that cannot be sold. He may produce for inventory but that can only be sustained up to a certain level, determined by the availability of his cash or credit. Beyond that, it's economic suicide.

If you come across anything inscrutable as the economist's productivity black box, the right way to address the issue is not to ignore it but to view it from another angle. The fact that the black box is termed 'productivity' is itself a cause of the confusion. Because of that, production output has always been the sole measure. Whether the factors of production are not producing because of something else doesn't count. Since we know that for a manufacturing setup, getting the goods out the door to the consumers is the main challenge, consumption is thus a better measure than production. Now if we instead label the black box 'consumptivity', then a whole new vista opens up. The problem is no longer solely production but extends to consumption.

But how do we prove that the problem lies with consumption? In this regard, we can rely on two plausible explanations. One is population growth and the other is falling income as a result of technological progress and globalisation. We can show two population charts, the movements of which mirror those of the two leftmost charts above.

The first is the rate of population growth (left chart from Wikipedia). The shape is similar to that of the GDP growth rate. Even though the GDP growth chart tracks the growth of the UK GDP (for the First Kondratieff Wave) and the US GDP (for subsequent Kondratieff Waves), the impact of that growth has trickled to the whole world as reflected in the global population growth rate.

If you observe this population chart carefully, you'll notice two kinks. The first, between 1900 and 1950, is the result of the two major wars in which more than 16 million and 60 million deaths were recorded for WW1 and WW2. The second reveals the folly of China's Great Leap Forward, which lasted from 1958 to 1961. Upwards of 30 million lives were believed to have perished by famine. However these kinks did not alter the secular trend of the pattern. It goes to show that long-term trend can be easily foretold years in advance. Even now, we can foresee the future outlook of economic growth just by looking at the population growth rate. Neither sixth sense nor fancy forecasting tool is needed. Also with patterns, we won't be blindsided by any black swan, which anyway is a lame excuse offered by those who fail to recognise obvious patterns.

The next chart maps the global population since 0 CE (Common Era). It corresponds to the GDP per capita chart above, that is, the second chart from the left. Even if you use total GDP instead of per capita, the same pattern would appear as the populations of the UK and the US have always been on the rise. These two charts are strong enough proofs of the close link between economic growth and population growth. It's not just a case of one causing the other; it's more of  a mutually reinforcing relationship. But now the population growth is starting to give in as a result of lower fertility rates; the opportunity cost of raising a kid is a main contributing factor.

Next we need to explain the productivity behaviour in the two right panels of the top charts. For this we have to rely on our 4C. The first C of this Fourth Kondratieff Wave, that is, the capacity driver  is the computer. It's fitting therefore to label this wave as the Intellectual Revolution. But on its own, it cannot power economic growth in a big way.

We thus need the second C, the internet, to act as the communication driver. We all know that the internet started becoming common in the mid-1990s. That's when the productivity measure began to improve. But how was this improvement possible when the population growth rate for the US and the whole world was slowing? To counter this headwind, we need the third C, the currency as represented by the debt increase. Notice that the first wave of debt increase on the left chart was initiated by President Reagan through government borrowings but the second wave was kicked off by President Clinton through private sector debt, both towards the end of their first terms in 1983 and 1995 — that's how both got reelected. However the impact of this debt increase on productivity could last until 2004 as productivity began declining from 2004 onwards, as indicated by the second panel from the right of the top charts above.

The technological  improvements of this Kondratieff Wave turn out to be more vicious than virtuous. Now we don't need as many workers as before. Work that used to require simple logical decisions by the workers can now be handled by microprocessor powered sensors, remotely controlled using SCADA systems. At most, only one person is needed to supervise the running of the SCADA system. For work requiring an army of workers, outsourcing and globalisation have sent the jobs to other corners of the world.

Productivity has actually tremendously increased, if only all the potential output can be consumed. But this was not happening as from 2001 to 2004, the labour force participation rate (left chart from the BLS) started declining. This pattern continues to this day.

Business corporations are caught in this vicious circle of lower consumption yielding lower income which again leads to lower consumption as workers spend less and less. The productivity slackens as workers remain on the payroll but not producing to their full extent because there are limited takers for their output. To improve productivity, the corporations retrench more workers which further worsens their buying power. Those still working end up in the low paying and low productivity service sector.

Such is the fate of mankind. In its quest for progress, it finds the answer but one that puts itself in a state worse off than before.

No comments:

Post a Comment