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Measuring Productivity

icon Dr. Koji Nomura is an Associate Professor at Keio Economic Observatory, Keio University. He is also chief expert of the APO Productivity Databook project, as well as project manager of the APO Productivity Database project. He has done extensive research on productivity, particularly on measuring capital. He has served as senior visiting research fellow at the Economic and Social Research Institute, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan; economist at the OECD; and fellow at the Center for Business and Government at Harvard University JFK School of Government.

Ms. Eunice Y.M. Lau is a visiting research fellow at Keio Economic Observatory, Keio University. She has served as economic advisor at the Industry, Economics and Statistics Directorate, Department of Trade and Industry, Government of the UK; Head of the Productivity Economics Branch, Economic Analysis Directorate, Office for National Statistics, Government of the UK; and lecturer in the Department of Economics, University of Portsmouth, UK.

“For the fact is that the key both to long-term economic growth and to sustained differences in economic performance between countries seems to be the ability to get more for less—to have output grow faster than input.” Paul Krugman (International Affairs, 1995; 71(4): 717–732)

Productivity is one of the main economic performance indicators that government policymakers often monitor. In simple terms, productivity measures units of output per unit of input. As resource constraints are prevalent in all economies in one form or another, whatever the income level, the capability of an economy to drive productivity growth, i.e., output growing faster than input, is seen as cardinal for ensuring future prosperity.


In 2005, GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity [PPP]) of APO member countries as a whole was only around 15% of that of the USA. Despite rapid economic growth of the group in recent years, the gap persists. The accompanying chart shows that for most APO countries, the substantial percapita GDP gaps with the USA are predominantly explained by their relatively poor labor productivity performance. This is why identifying the sources of labor productivity growth is crucial to a country’s development efforts.

There are different techniques for productivity analysis. The APO Productivity Databook uses the growth accounting framework, the international standard for compiling productivity estimates. In this approach, economic growth is decomposed into contributions of input growth and total factor productivity (TFP) growth. Within the same framework, labor productivity growth can be traced back to its sources in capital deepening, improvement in labor quality, and TFP growth. Although full analysis of these sources was not performed in the Databook 2008 (the current plan is that sources of productivity growth will be analyzed at least for some countries in Databook 2009) as theoretically established channels of labor productivity growth, they highlight areas where potential policy levers could be applied to raise labor productivity.

Another perspective is the industry origins of productivity growth, which offer insight into the dynamics of an economy and the sectors contributing most to the productivity drive. Furthermore, productivity growth for the whole economy can be decomposed into the intrasectoral effect (productivity gains within the industry sectors) and the intersectoral effect (the change in the resource allocation of production). The latter is positive when high-performance industry is growing relative to other sectors in the economy.

Empirical evidence of the “Asian Miracle” has suggested that input growth (especially capital accumulation) was behind the success story of Asian Tigers, i.e., Hong Kong, Singapore, Republic of Korea, and Republic of China, that experienced more than a four-fold increase in per capita income over the 35-year period from the mid-1960s. Labor productivity growth was largely explained by capital deepening with TFP growth playing a surprisingly small role in its success. The lessons to be learned are therefore why those countries can mobilize input better than other countries and how they can achieve and sustain high rates of saving and investment. Nelson and Pack (Economic Journal, 1999; 109(457): 416–436) highlighted that among other factors, the possibility to shift into highly productive sectors is a crucial element of this productive assimilation of factor inputs.

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