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Here’s a peculiar new twist in ongoing media coverage and more general establishment commentary on the U.S. economy: The conventional wisdom among both these intertwined crowds holds that the American trade deficit doesn’t matter much economically. Yet the apparently poor trade numbers reported yesterday by the Census Bureau was the talk of these towns.

The conventional wisdom held by the establishmentarians also holds that productivity is incredibly important. Indeed, it’s widely described as a key to future prosperity. But the improving productivity figures released today by the Labor Department were virtually ignored.

Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals why. President Trump has made a very big deal out of the need to reduce the trade deficit, and the newest data indicate he’s failing. (Special note: You’ll be hearing more from me on this score very soon.) But Mr. Trump has said nothing about productivity. (That’s actually typical for politicians.) So even had the statistics been poor, there would have been no opportunity for a mass “Gotcha!” festival.

These latest numbers concern labor productivity which, as known by RealityChek regulars, is the narrowest of two productivity measures tracked by the Labor Department. But they’re also published in a much more timely fashion than the total factor (also called multi-factor) productivity statistics, which as their name implies, require collecting more information in order to calculate.

The improvement is most apparent upon examining recent annual changes in labor productivity (which tells us how many units of output a single person working for a single hour can turn out). The new figures bring the story up to the end of 2018, and show a year-to-year gain in the fourth quarter of 1.90 percent for non-farm businesses – the Labor Department’s American economic universe when it comes to productivity.

That increase may not sound like much, but it’s the biggest such advance since the first quarter of 2015 (1.60 percent), and the second biggest since the third quarter of 2010 (2.70 percent). And the trend has been upward since the second half of 2015.

Manufacturing’s labor productivity performance wasn’t quite so good. For the fourth quarter of 2018, it rose at a 1.00 percent annual rate. That increase represented a slowdown from the third quarter’s 1.50 percent. But even though industry’s productivity has been climbing only sluggishly in general since the beginning of 2016, that’s represented a major and positive change from the end of 2014 through 2015 – when manufacturing labor productivity fell on-year for five straight quarters.

Nonetheless, no one should assume that all’s well with labor productivity in America, either for non-farm businesses or for manufacturers. In fact, as the table below makes clear, the nation remains smack in the middle of a deep long-term labor productivity slump in relative terms. Specifically, over the last three economic expansions (the best way to measure trends over time, since it compares like stages of the business cycle), labor productivity gains for the non-farm business and manufacturing sectors have drifted steadily downward.

Especially discouraging: Although the current economic recovery is now just about as long as its 1990s predecessor, the cumulative non-farm business productivity rise for this expansion is less than half as strong. As for manufacturing, its labor productivity performance has been so weak (increasing by just over a fifth the rate of the 1990s expansion), that it’s lost its long-time productivity improvement lead.

When productivity improves strongly, all sorts of good things follow. In particular, workers’ wages can rise robustly without triggering inflation – which in an economy dominated by consumption, can help set the stage for equally vigorous, non-inflationary growth, and therefore more wealth for everyone to share. Does that sound boring to you? I’m shaking my head “No,” as well, which is why whether they keep getting overlooked or not, I’ll keep following the productivity news closely.

                                                                   Non-farm business          Manufacturing

1990s expansion (2Q 1991-1Q 2001)           +23.74 percent            +45.86 percent

bubble expansion (4Q 2001-4Q 2007)          +16.59 percent            +30.23 percent

current expansion: (2Q 2009 to present):      +11.28 percent              +9.70 percent

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