Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell stated yesterday that the U.S. economy is doing “very well.” Judging by the metrics that the central bank is supposed to focus on as a matter of law – inflation and the headline unemployment rate – that’s an eminently respectable claim. Based on another key measure of economic performance – labor productivity – it looks like whistling in the dark.
As known by RealityChek regulars, strong productivity growth is widely seen by economists as the best guarantor of sustainable future prosperity and rising living standards. And as also known, labor productivity is the narrower of the two such measures of economic activity tracked by the federal government.
But it’s the gauge that’s updated on the most timely basis, and the latest numbers – which came out last week – should be spurring alarm, not complacency.
These final (for now) results for the first quarter of this year both confirmed that output per person hour worked for the non-farm business sector (the broadest definition of the U.S. economy used in these studies) remains stuck in an historically slow-growth phase, and showed that labor productivity in manufacturing may be shifting into contraction.
The labor productivity performance of both these major sectors was revised down in the latest release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Rather than having grown by 0.70 percent on an annualized basis sequentially in the first quarter, labor productivity for non-farm businesses is now estimated to have advanced by only 0.40 percent. And in manufacturing, a 0.50 percent annualized increase is now judged to have been a 1.20 percent decrease. That’s its third such drop in the last five quarters.
A glass-half-full analysis would point out that the new non-farm business figure was better than that for the fourth quarter of last year (0.30 percent), and that the manufacturing fall-off followed a 4.20 percent fourth quarter jump.
But the new BLS report also presented manufacturing revisions going back to 2008, and they make clear that its labor productivity performance during this period has been far worse than even previously thought. (And it was already really bad.)
Let’s concentrate on how the new statistics have changed the picture for manufacturing labor productivity during the current recovery, and compare those results with those for previous recoveries – since such analyses yield the best, apples-to-apples, results.
Before the new data came out, manufacturing labor productivity during this expansion was reported to have grown by a total of 9.69 percent. That was less than a third of the rate achieved during the recovery of the early 2000s – which was also known as the Bubble Recovery that helped trigger the financial crisis and ensuing recession, and which last only six years versus. The current recovery is approaching its ninth anniversary.
And during the nearly ten-year long expansion that began in the early 1990s, manufacturing labor productivity surged even more strongly – by 45.86 percent.
The new manufacturing labor productivity growth number for the current expansion? Only 8.28 percent! That’s a downgrade of more than 14.50 percent!
Moreover, although the non-farm business labor productivity growth rate for the current recovery wasn’t revised down nearly as much – from 9.70 percent to 9.62 percent. But this figure, too, pales next to those of previous recoveries. During the bubble expansion, non-farm business labor productivity rose by a total of 16.03 percent. During the 1990s expansion, the rate was 23.25 percent.
By the way, don’t put too many hopes in the broader productivity measure – multi-factor productivity – to come to the rescue. Those numbers haven’t been much better.
Some productivity students have been arguing that it’s only a matter of time, and that recent technological advances will soon start super-charging productivity growth after a slow start just as they did in an earlier era of transformative technological change – the 1920s.
These optimists had better be right. Because if not, the only way to return American growth and living standards gains to their historic rates of improvements will be to flood the economy with credit in order to crank up spending. Feel free to scream if the date “2008” means anything to you.