Thursday, 11 September 2014

A research agenda on NZ's productivity

One of the most discussed issues to do with the New Zealand economy is New Zealand's less than stellar history of productivity growth. We do OK for a couple of years every now and then, but we can't keep it up. Trying to explain this history is a complex and difficult task but one which the "Productivity Hub" - a part of Government Economic Network - was set up to help coordinate.

Patrick Nolan has a paper in Policy Quarterly - vol. 10 no. 2 May 2014 - outlining the development by the Productivity Hub of a "Forward Looking Agenda of Research" or FLARE. Yes you do have to wonder if they couldn't have come up with a better name.

Nolan writes,
The objective of FLARE is to provide a list of relevant research projects which would advance understanding of New Zealand's productivity issues and ultimately improve policy. A short-list of proposed projects for the next two years is shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2 is

One thing with regard to point 1 in Figure 2 is that the theory of firm-level productivity isn't based on the theory of the firm. It is based on the theory of production - think what you were taught about production in 2nd year micro, for a book length discussion see Rasmussen (2013). For a survey of the contemporary theory of the firm see Walker (forthcoming). The theories are very different and are useful for examining different aspects of the productivity puzzle. This bring me to a related point that Nolan makes,
Although these are largely descriptive questions, they are nonetheless important, as clearly identifying what you are dealing with is a useful starting point for analysis. Further, this descriptive analysis will provide a basis for an improved understanding of how changes take place at the level of the firm.
To fully understand such changes requires recourse to the boarder area of organisational economics (see Gibbons and Roberts 2013) rather than just an emphasis on the theory of the firm or on production economics. Looking in side the firm to see how changes in management, in corporate culture, incentives within the firm, internal labour markets etc alter productivity seems important.

Nolan goes on to say,
As Sautet (2000) noted, many currently accepted theories of the firm cannot provide insights into important market phenomena such as entrepreneurship.
While there is truth to Sautet's comment, this is an area in which progress is being made. Two recent examples are Spulber (2009) and Foss and Klein (2012) - for a quick summary of these works see sections 3.2 and 3.3 of Walker (forthcoming).

Nolan also notes, correctly, the importance of understand the data utilised in empirical studies.
This approach should also help to contribute to efforts to improve measures of productivity and understanding of their limits, including the differences between firm-based and economy-wide (macro) measures.
This point about difference in micro and macro measure highlighted by the debate over the so-called "Solow Paradox"- Robert Solow famously quipped in a 1987 review of the book “Manufacturing Matters: The Myth of the Post-Industrial Economy” that: “[y]ou can see the computer everywhere but in the productivity statistics”, a remark that has given rise to what is often called the “Solow productivity paradox”. It turns out that the paradox is a paradox only at the macro data level, micro-level data provides little evidence in support of Solow’s paradox. Pilat (2004: 11) explains “[s]tudies with firm-level data often find the strongest evidence for economic impacts of ICT.” Recent research on the productivity paradox based on firm-level data suggests that ICT use is beneficial to firm performance and productivity, even for industries and countries where there is no evidence at the more aggregate levels. This result holds for all countries in which micro-level studies have been carried out. For example, studies have found that ICT capital deepening increased labour productivity in services firms in Germany and the Netherlands. A close correlation between labour productivity and ICT use was found for Swiss firms. Another study looked at ICT use in Finland and concluded there are productivity-enhancing effects associated with ICTs. Yet more work found that greater use of ICTs was associated with higher labour productivity growth in the nineties for Canada. Another paper analysed U.K. data and found a positive effect on labour productivity and multi-factor productivity associated with the exploration of computer networks for trading. U.S. data was used to demonstrate that average labour productivity was higher in plants with computer networks with labour productivity being around 5 percent higher for such plants.

Serious thinking about the data used in empirical studies is not given enough emphasis.

There are  many other interesting and important issues raised in  Nolan's paper which if you are interested in New Zealand's productivity performance is well worth reading.

  • Foss, Nicolai J. and Peter G. Klein (2012). Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gibbons, Robert and John Roberts (2013). The Handbook of Organizational Economics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Pilat, Dirk (2004). ‘Introduction and Summary’. In OECD, The Economic Impact of ICT − Measurement, Evidence and Implications, Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  • Rasmussen, Svend (2013). Production economics: The Basic Theory of Production Optimisation, Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
  • Spulber, Daniel F. (2009). The Theory of the Firm: Microeconomics with Endogenous Entrepreneurs, Firms, Markets, and Organizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Walker, Paul (forthcoming). "Contracts, Entrepreneurs, Market Creation and Judgement: The Contemporary Mainstream Theory of the Firm in Perspective". Journal of Economic Surveys.

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