Productivity: More with Less by Better

Available resources are scarce. To sustain our society's income and living standards in a world with ecological and demographic change, we need to make smarter use of them.




In a nutshell

Nobel Prize winners Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus state in their classic economics textbook: Economics matters because resources are scarce. Indeed, productivity research is at the very heart of economics as it describes the efficiency with which these scarce resources are transformed into goods and services and, hence, into social wealth. If the consumption of resources is to be reduced, e. g., due to ecological reasons, our society’s present material living standards can only be maintained by productivity growth. The aging of our society and the induced scarcity of labour is a major future challenge. Without productivity growth a solution is hard to imagine. To understand the processes triggering productivity growth, a look at micro data on the level of individual firms or establishments is indispensable.

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Productivity is output in relation to input. While the concept of total factor productivity describes how efficiently labour, machinery, and all combined inputs are used, labour productivity describes value added (Gross Domestic Product, GDP) per worker and measures, in a macroeconomic sense, income per worker.

Productivity Growth on the Slowdown

Surprisingly, despite of massive use of technology and rushing digitisation, advances in productivity have been slowing down during the last decades. Labour productivity growth used to be much higher in the 1960s and 1970s than it is now. For the G7 countries, for example, annual growth rates of GDP per hour worked declined from about 4% in the early 1970s to about 2% in the 1980s and 1990s and then even fell to about 1% after 2010 (see figure 1).

This implies a dramatic loss in potential income: Would the 4% productivity growth have been sustained over the four and a half decades from 1972 to 2017, G7 countries’ GDP per hour would now be unimaginable 2.5 times as high as it actually is. What a potential to, for instance, reduce poverty or to fund research on fundamentals topics as curing cancer or using fusion power!

So why has productivity growth declined dramatically although at the same time we see, for instance, a boom in new digital technologies that can be expected to increase productivity growth? For sure, part of the decline might be spurious and caused by mismeasurement of the contributions of digital technologies. For instance, it is inherently difficult to measure the value of a google search or another video on youtube. That being said, most observers agree that part of the slowdown is real.

Techno-Pessimists and Techno-Optimists

Techno-pessimists say, well, these new technologies are just not as consequential for productivity as, for instance, electrification or combustion engines have been. Techno-optimists argue that it can take many years until productivity effects of new technologies kick in, and it can come in multiple waves. New technology we have now may just be the tools to invent even more consequential innovations in the future.

While this strand of the discussion is concerned with the type of technology invented, others see the problem in that inventions nowadays may diffuse slowly from technological leaders to laggards creating a wedge between few superstar firms and the crowd (Akcigit et al., 2021). Increased market concentration and market power by superstar firms may reduce competitive pressure and the incentives to innovate.

Finally, reduced Schumpeterian business dynamism, i.e. a reduction in firm entry and exit as well as firm growth and decline, reflects a slowdown in the speed with which production factors are recombined to find their most productive match.

While the explanation for and the way out of the productivity puzzle are still unknown, it seems understood that using granular firm level data is the most promising path to find answers.

What are the Origins of Productivity Growth?

Aggregate productivity growth can originate from (i) a more efficient use of available inputs at the firm level as described above or (ii) from an improved allocation of resources between firms.

Higher efficiency at the firm level captures, e.g., the impact of innovations (Acemoglu et al., 2018) or improved firm organisation (management) (Heinz et al., 2020; Müller und Stegmaier, 2017), while improved factor allocation describes the degree of which scarce input factors are re-allocated from inefficient to efficient firms (‘Schumpeterian creative destruction’) (Aghion et al., 2015; Decker et al., 2021).

Most economic processes influence the productivity of existing firms and the growth and the use of resources of these firms and their competitors as well. The accelerated implementation of robotics in German plants (Deng et al., 2020), the foreign trade shocks induced by the rise of the Chinese economy (Bräuer et al., 2019), but also the COVID-19 pandemic, whose consequences are still to evaluate (Müller, 2021) not only effects on productivity and growth of the firms directly affected but at the same time may create new businesses and question existing firms.

While productivity can be measured at the level of aggregated sectors or economies, micro data on the level of individual firms or establishments are indispensable to study firm organisation, technology and innovation diffusion, superstar firms, market power, factor allocation and Schumpeterian business dynamism. The IWH adopts this micro approach within the EU Horizon 2020 project MICROPROD as well as with the CompNet research network.

As “creative destruction” may also negatively affect the persons involved (e. g., in the case of layoffs, Fackler et al., 2021), the IWH analyses the consequences of bankruptcies in its Bankruptcy Research Unit and looks at the implications of creative destruction for the society, e. g., within a project funded by Volkswagen Foundation searching for the economic origins of populism and in the framework of the Institute for Research on Social Cohesion.

Publications on “Productivity”


Die Ost-West-Produktivitätslücke: Die Rolle von Produktspezialisierung, Produktpreisunterschieden und physischer Produktivität

Matthias Mertens Steffen Müller

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 1, 2022


Auch 30 Jahre nach der Deutschen Vereinigung erreicht die ostdeutsche Wirtschaft nur 82% der westdeutschen Arbeitsproduktivität. Dieser Unterschied in der gesamtwirtschaftlichen Arbeitsproduktivität steht in engem Zusammenhang mit vielen wirtschaftlichen und gesellschaftlichen Problemen, denen Ostdeutschland heute gegenübersteht. Auf Basis differenzierter Daten zu den einzelnen Produkten, die Firmen im deutschen Verarbeitenden Gewerbe herstellen, untersuchen wir in diesem Beitrag, wie sich ost- und westdeutsche Firmen bezüglich Produktspezialisierung, Produktpreisen und technischer Effizienz unterscheiden. Wir zeigen auf, dass der Osten – entgegen der Hypothese der „verlängerten Werkbank“ – nicht aufgrund einer Spezialisierung auf Vorprodukte weniger produktiv als der Westen ist. Obwohl Ostprodukte zu deutlich geringeren Preisen verkauft werden, können auch Preisunterschiede zwischen Ost- und Westfirmen den Produktivitätsrückstand nicht erklären. Stattdessen sind Faktoren, welche die physische Produktivität (technische Effizienz) von Unternehmen beeinflussen, entscheidend, um den Produktivitätsrückstand auf Unternehmensebene zu erklären.

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Handelsschocks, Arbeitsmärkte und Wohlstand während der ersten Globalisierung

Richard Bräuer Wolf-Fabian Hungerland Felix Kersting

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 1, 2022


Dieser Beitrag untersucht Deutschland in der ersten Globalisierung in den Jahrzehnten vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg. Damals erlebte das Deutsche Reich eine massive Zunahme von Getreideimporten aus Amerika. Wir vergleichen Landkreise, die auf die importierten Getreidesorten spezialisiert waren, mit Kreisen, die andere landwirtschaftliche Güter hergestellt haben. Unsere Resultate zeigen, dass viele Arbeitskräfte die Kreise verlassen, in denen vom Handelsschock betroffene Produkte hergestellt wurden. Allerdings bleiben die in modernen Volkswirtschaften beobachteten negativen Effekte auf Einkommen pro Kopf und Sterblichkeit aus, auch eine politische Radikalisierung findet nicht statt. Unsere Ergebnisse legen nahe, dass die Migrationsbewegungen negative wirtschaftliche und in der Folge auch politische Auswirkungen abfedern. Damals verließen etwa viermal so viele Einwohner ihren Landkreis nach einem Handelsschock wie in vergleichbaren Situationen in den heutigen USA.

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The (Heterogenous) Economic Effects of Private Equity Buyouts

Steven J. Davis John Haltiwanger Kyle Handley Josh Lerner Ben Lipsius Javier Miranda

in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 10, 2022


The effects of private equity buyouts on employment, productivity, and job reallocation vary tremendously with macroeconomic and credit conditions, across private equity groups, and by type of buyout. We reach this conclusion by examining the most extensive database of U.S. buyouts ever compiled, encompassing thousands of buyout targets from 1980 to 2013 and millions of control firms. Employment shrinks 13% over two years after buyouts of publicly listed firms – on average, and relative to control firms – but expands 13% after buyouts of privately held firms. Post-buyout productivity gains at target firms are large on average and much larger yet for deals executed amidst tight credit conditions. A post-buyout tightening of credit conditions or slowing of GDP growth curtails employment growth and intra-firm job reallocation at target firms. We also show that buyout effects differ across the private equity groups that sponsor buyouts, and these differences persist over time at the group level. Rapid upscaling in deal flow at the group level brings lower employment growth at target firms.

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The Impact of Active Aggregate Demand on Utilisation-adjusted TFP

Konstantin Gantert

in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 9, 2022


Non-clearing goods markets are an important driver of capacity utilisation and total factor productivity (TFP). The trade-off between goods prices and household search effort is central to goods market matching and therefore drives TFP over the business cycle. In this paper, I develop a New-Keynesian DSGE model with capital utilisation, worker effort, and expand it with<i> goods market search-and-matching (SaM)</i> to model non-clearing goods markets. I conduct a horse-race between the different capacity utilisation channels using Bayesian estimation and capacity utilisation survey data. Models that include goods market SaM improve the data fit, while the capital utilisation and worker effort channels are rendered less important compared to the literature. It follows that TFP fluctuations increase for demand and goods market mismatch shocks, while they decrease for technology shocks. This pattern increases as goods market frictions increase and as prices become stickier. The paper shows the importance of non-clearing goods markets in explaining the difference between technology and TFP over the business cycle.

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Globalization, Productivity Growth, and Labor Compensation

Christian Dreger Marius Fourné Oliver Holtemöller

in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 7, 2022


We analyze how changes in international trade integration affect productivity and the functional income distribution. To account for endogeneity, we construct a leaveout measure for international trade integration for country-industry pairs using international input-output tables. Our findings corroborate on the country-industry level that international trade integration increases productivity. Moreover, we show that both trade in intermediate inputs and trade in value added is associated with lower labor shares in emerging markets. For advanced countries, we document a positive effect of trade in value added on the labor share of income. Further, we show that the effects on productivity and labor share are heterogeneous across different sectors. Finally, we discuss the implications of our results for a possible throwback in international trade integration due to experiences from recent crises.

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