Short-time work (STW) schemes are an important fiscal stabiliser in many countries. In the Great Recession, 25 out of 33 OECD countries used short-time work schemes (Balleer et al. 2016). STW schemes aim to preserve employment in firms temporarily experiencing weak demand. This is achieved by providing subsidies to firms to reduce number of hours worked by each employee, instead of reducing the number of workers. As well as being paid for actual hours worked, the subsidy is used to pay workers for hours not worked – albeit not completely compensating the loss of income due to reduced hours. In most countries, the bulk of the subsidy is paid by the state, although companies can also contribute.
Firms are increasingly investing in automation, substituting capital for labour, as workers become more scarce and costly. We are seeing multiple examples, from automation in food processing to increasingly-common self-service tills. This push for productivity growth is one of the key themes from our meetings with businesses in the past year, which we think suggests a reversal of a decade-long trend.
Since 2008, aggregate productivity performance in the UK has been substantially worse than in the preceding eight years. Over the same period, aggregate real wage growth has also been significantly lower – it has averaged -0.4% per annum from 2009-16, compared with 2.3% per annum from 2000-08. The MPC, and others, have drawn a link between these two phenomena, arguing that low productivity growth has been a major cause – if not the major cause – of weak wage growth. The logic is simple – if workers produce less output for firms, then in a competitive market firms will only be willing to employ them at a lower wage.
How do firms response to falls in demand for their products in the real world? Do they cut wages? Or are they able only to freeze them? What other methods can they use to adjust their labour costs? And does any of this matter? The answer to the final question is emphatically yes. How firms adjust the quantity and cost of their labour input, particularly in response to a downturn, is relevant for monetary policy. If firms are unable to cut wages – what economists call ‘downward nominal wage rigidity’ (DNWR) – then they have to reduce the number of employees, increasing unemployment, further depressing output and weighing on inflation.
AWE growth has picked up over the past year but stalled in recent months, remaining some way below pre-recession levels. Should we expect that weakness to continue? One way to gauge wage pressures is through the company visit scores (CVS) the Bank’s Agents assign for businesses they meet. Agents score a range of variables, including turnover, employment and costs, -5 to +5, generally according to growth. An anonymised CVS dataset is published on the Bank’s website. Here we look at what CVS say about prospects for pay, considering factors such as recruitment difficulties, low inflation, public sector pay and the National Living Wage. Overall, we think this evidence points to continued modest rates of wage growth over the coming year.