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Yesterday, I posted some data – with a special focus on major victim state Ohio and major victim region Youngstown – providing some badly needed perspective on General Motors newly announced manufacturing jobs layoffs in the United States (along with Canada and other unspecified locations). Today I’d like to follow up with some statistics that shed more light on GM’s decision – and the strengths and weaknesses of the American domestic automobile industry.

There’s no doubt that, as widely noted, many trends and developments are responsible for the new job cuts – which are highly unlikely to be restricted to GM alone. Some of the biggest include changing product mixes (away from smaller vehicles and toward larger vehicles), new technologies (for electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles), and the inevitable waning of the latest “automotive cycle” – that is, a slowdown in auto sales that has been entirely predictable following the sector’s strong recovery from a terrifying downturn during the last recession.

But one industry trend that’s been sorely neglected – and that surely bears heavily on the “Detroit 3” auto companies’ failure to continue producing smaller vehicles profitably at their domestic factories (the plants targeted for closure) – concerns its productivity performance. In a word, it’s been lousy – which supports last week’s post presenting evidence that U.S. metals-using industries like automotive have been using crutches like (foreign government-subsidized and therefore artificially) cheap raw materials, along with massive job and production offshoring, to juice their profits rather than efficiency-enhancing improvements resulting from creating new technologies, investing in new machinery, devising better management techniques, or some combination of these measures.

That post last week featured data showing that the American transportation equipment sector (which of course includes auto manufacturing) has performed relatively well during the current U.S. economic recovery and the previous expansion – though the rate of growth decelerated over that time span. These periods were examined because they were marked by a tremendous increase in American imports of steel over-produced and dumped into the United States by foreign producers, which pushed steel prices way down for reasons having nothing to do with free trade or free markets.

But more detailed statistics make clear that the automotive sector per se lately has fared worse when it comes to total factor productivity – the broadest of two measures of productivity tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the productivity measure I examined last week.

During the 2001-2007 American expansion, total factor productivity in the motor vehicles sector actually grew faster than that for transportation equipment overall – 22.70 percent versus 13.38 percent. But from the 2009 start of the current recovery through 2016 (the latest available data), vehicle makers’ total factor productivity advanced by only 2.53 percent – that is, much more slowly than the 9.67 percent improvement registered by transportation equipment overall.

In fact, since achieving a huge (15 percent) snapback in total factor productivity during the recovery’s first year following a deep (12.29 percent) nosedive during the recession, vehicle-makers’ total factor productivity fell by 10.94 percent through 2016. As a result, its total factor productivity hasn’t improved on net since 1989.

Also interesting: Since the U.S. ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 created a bright green light for automotive production and job offshoring, total factor productivity in American motor vehicle-making is up by only 9.20 percent. That’s a considerably slower rate of progress than for manufacturing overall (20.13 percent), even though automotive trade has figured so heavily in U.S. trade flows with fellow NAFTA signatories Mexico and Canada so far.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenges all automotive manufacturers face given the multi-dimensional crossroads that seems to be arriving rapidly for the sector. What should be glaringly obvious, though, is that they’re unlikely to be met adequately – including producing smaller vehicles profitably, especially if and when oil prices start rising again – with a productivity performance that barely qualifies as second-rate.    

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