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This morning’s government report on labor productivity for the first quarter of this year contained a valuable reminder that this measure of the economy’s efficiency – and indirectly, its success in fostering healthy growth and sustainably rising living standards – can improve for good and not-so-good reasons. And the complicating factor in an otherwise strong set of data came in manufacturing.

Labor productivity, as RealityChek regulars know, is the narrower of the two productivity gauges regularly published by the Department of Labor. As opposed to multi-factor productivity, which measures how much in the way of a variety of business inputs is needed to generate a unit of output, labor productivity only tells us how much each hour of work put in by an employee achieves that result. But the labor productivity figures come out on a timelier basis, so they’re understandably watched closely.

As suggested above, the overall figures were encouraging. For non-farm businesses (the Labor Department’s U.S. economy universe), labor productivity rose by 2.40 percent between the first three months of 2018 and the first three months of this year. That was the best such performance since the third quarter of 2010 (2.70 percent), and especially good news since that previous mark came much earlier in the current business cycle (i.e., much sooner after the end of the last severe recession), when robust productivity gains are generally easier to generate.

Moreover, these labor productivity advances have accelerated sequentially since the third quarter of last year.

In addition, on a quarter-to-quarter basis, the first quarter’s 3.60 percent increase at an annual rate was this metric’s best performance since the 3.70 percent rise in the third quarter of 2014.

Manufacturing’s 1.20 percent productivity improvement over the first quarter of 2018 wasn’t stellar, but pretty much in line with recent readings. The new quarter-to-quarter reading, though, was solid; industry’s labor productivity was up 1.70 percent annualized – the best such performance since the 4.40 percent pop in the fourth quarter of 2017. And the rate of increase here had sped up since the third quarter of last year as well.

The fly in the ointment concerns why first quarter manufacturing labor productivity even rose at that solid quarter-to-quarter pace. A big part of the reason was that manufacturing output fell during this period – by one percent at an annual rate. In other words, the sector reduced the number of hours its workers worked, but it also saw production fall – just more slowly. That result is certainly better than output falling just as fast or faster than hours worked. But it doesn’t qualify as “good.”

The latest sequential manufacturing annualized output decrease is the first since the 1.50 percent decline in the third quarter of 2017 (when the sector’s productivity sank by a recessionary 4.40 percent at an annual rate). Industry’s labor productivity rebounded sharply in the following quarter (by 4.20 percent annualized, while output shot up by 5.70 percent). So maybe this latest lousy output number is just another bump in the road.

But it’s that combination that represents the best possible labor productivity outcome: Both output and efficiency rising at the same time.

It’s also important to remember, however, that both the economy overall and the manufacturing sector still aren’t close to returning to their labor productivity performances of the recent past. Here are the updated comparisons between the current recovery, and its two most recent predecessors:

                                                                 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):    +12.17 percent          +9.96 percent

The newest quarterly figures brighten the picture slightly. But boasting about the U.S. economy should definitely be muted until these productivity numbers start turning around dramatically.