They’re not as exciting as the trade data and the jobs data these days. In fact, they rarely generate any excitement. And this year, they had the misfortune of coming out on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. All the same, last Thursday’s second set of government figures on labor productivity for the first quarter of this year matters because it strengthened the case for a disturbing trend: Although this measure of efficiency – and indirectly, success in fostering healthy growth and sustainably rising living standards – confirmed the initial encouraging results for the economy as a whole, manufacturing’s laggard status looks worse than ever..
As RealityChek regulars know, the labor productivity measured in last week’s report 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.
The release’s headline figure confirmed the solid labor productivity gain originally reported for the first quarter in the “non-farm business” sector – the Department’s definition of the American economic universe when it comes to productivity. Although the 3.4 percent annualized sequential rate of improvement was a little slower than the first 3.6 percent estimate, it remained the best such result since the 3.7 percent recorded for the third quarter of 2014. Moreover, it still left labor productivity growth accelerating since the third quarter of last year.
For manufacturing, however, the first quarter’s sequential labor productivity increase was revised way down – from a pretty good 1.7 percent to a dismal 0.4 percent.
Even worse, whereas non-farm business productivity improved because both output and hours worked rose (the productivity gain recipe we want to see), the much smaller increase for manufacturing stemmed from hours worked dropping even faster than output (the productivity gain recipe we don’t want to see).
As a result of this poor manufacturing performance, the labor productivity gap between industry and the rest of the economy has been widening – and not in a good way for industry. Here’s an updated table showing the total labor productivity gains for non-farm businesses and for manufacturing during the two previous economic expansions and the current expansion (in order to ensure apples-to-apples comparisons).
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): +12.18 percent +9.59 percent
It’s worrisome enough that the non-farm business increases have been decelerating since the 1990s expansion. But the extent of the manufacturing slowdown has been nothing less than shocking. Indeed, during the current recovery, manufacturing has clearly lost its labor productivity leadership status – and by a considerable margin.
Alternatively put, even though the 1990s expansion and the current expansion have lasted roughly the same amount of time, the rise in non-farm labor productivity during this recovery has been only about half as fast, and that for manufacturing only about a fifth as fast.
American manufacturing has shown some important signs of revival under President Trump – especially in job creation and output (at least until recently). But whatever the results of Mr. Trump’s trade wars, unless its labor productivity performance improves dramatically, its comeback will remain sorely incomplete.