To the surprise of exactly no one who’s been following the issue lately, last week’s newest data from the federal government on productivity was literally brimming with bad news.
True, the figures only go up to 2016 – because the report covered multifactor productivity, the broader of the two measures tracked by the Labor Department. These figures take longer to calculate than the narrower productivity measure (labor productivity) because they examine many inputs other than simply hours worked. But the results were entirely consistent with the longstanding story that the U.S. economy’s efficiency keeps growing more and more slowly – that is, where it continues to grow at all.
In fact, America’s recent productivity performance has been so bad that observers could actually take some comfort in the headline finding that multifactor productivity improved between 2015 and 2016 in only 37 of the 86 manufacturing industries looked at in detail by Labor. That’s because this total was significantly higher than in 2014-15 – when multifactor productivity rose in only 21 of those sectors.
I could repeat previous exercises and list the industries with the best and worst latest annual multifactor productivity performances – which as usual, will be full of surprises for those expecting that the stars would be the nation’s technology-intensive “industries of the future.” But for now, let’s focus on what looks like an especially alarming development: Over the last roughly three decades, these crucial chunks of the economy have turned from multifactor productivity growth champs to multifactor productivity disaster areas. Over the same period, several other touted advanced manufacturing industries have also tumbled into the dumps multifactor productivity-wise from much less lofty perches.
The worst examples of literal collapse in multifactor productivity growth are in information technology hardware, and the most dramatic plunge has taken place in computers and computer peripheral equipment. Between 1987 and 2016, these sectors collectively have run away with the American economy’s multifactor productivity growth honors, with their efficiency advancing by this measure by 12.1 percent annually.
Since 2007, however (the year the Great Recession began), their average annual multifactor productivity growth rate has slumped to 1.2 percent, and between 2015 and 2016, it actually fell – by 2.6 percent.
Semiconductors and electronic components fared little better. Their 1987-2016 average annual multifactor productivity growth was 9.1 percent. But it’s fallen throughout the 2007-2016 period, and between 2015 and 2016 – when the current economic recovery was in its seventh year – it also dropped by 2.6 percent.
The ups and downs of multifactor productivity growth in communications equipment (including the gear used by the internet) have been more modest, but undeniably depressing all the same. Average annual growth between 1987 and 2016 was only 2.6 percent, but during the 1990s, it surged to nearly 5.5 percent. But since recession onset year 2007, multifactor productivity has decreased here as well, and declined by 1.6 percent between 2015 and 2016.
The aerospace industry, long America’s biggest net export winner, oddly has never registered robust multifactor productivity growth – at least not since 1987, when the data began to be collected. The average annual multifactor productivity growth rate for finished aircraft, missiles, and their parts? It’s actually -0.1 percent. The golden age (relatively speaking) of multifactor productivity growth for these companies came in between 2000 and 2007, when the average annual advance was 2.7 percent. But since 2007 it’s off slightly (dipping by an average 0.6 percent per year) and between 2015 and 2016 alone, plummeted by 6.7 percent.
Yet even these dismal figures look positively glowing when compared with those of the American pharmaceutical industry – widely viewed (like aerospace) as the global state of the art. From 1987 to 2016, multifactor productivity in this sector has decreased by an average of 2.3 percent every year. That’s by far the worst performance among the 86 industries tracked by the Labor Department. And since 2007, the rate of decline sped up to an annual average of 3.8 percent. Between 2015 and 2016, moreover, the drop-off gained even more momentum, reaching 4.8 percent.
Nor have other manufacturing sectors not typically classified as “technology intensive,” but nonetheless falling into the high value category, been immune from these woes. Here are the average annual multifactor productivity growth (and shrinkage) figures for key time periods for sectors both qualifying for this description, and known for strong exports:
agriculture, construction, and mining machinery
1987-2016: -0.2 percent
2007-2016: -2.5 percent
2015-2016: -8.6 percent (the year’s worst nosedive)
1987-2016: 0.3 percent
2007-2016: -1.1 percent
2015-2016: -4.1 percent
turbines and power transmission equipment
1987-2016: 0 percent
2007-2016: 0.1 percent
2015-2016: -4.4 percent
It’s always possible that these multifactor productivity numbers have improved substantially over the last two years. But 30-year old trends rarely turn around completely, or even close, in such short time-spans. And multifactor productivity growth trends don’t turn around without the type of capital spending surge – among other developments – that the economy simply hasn’t seen yet. Until business begins spending considerably more, expect multifactor productivity in America to remain depressed – along with the nation’s odds of recreating sustainable prosperity.