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Sure, they’re lagging indicators, and don’t tell us much, if anything, about whatever coronavirus effect the American economy might face. Still, today’s new U.S. government data on labor productivity both say something about where the economy has been until recently before pandemic fears hit, and provide a noteworthy point of comparison between the record of President Trump and his White House predecessor, Barack Obama. And although the news for the economy isn’t good at all (especially for manufacturing), the findings should cheer Mr. Trump and his supporters.

The figures, from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), cover labor productivity – a gauge of output of a good or service per each hour a worker has been on the job trying to create it. It’s the narrower of the two productivity measures calculated by BLS (the other, multifactor productivity, reports on output as a function of many more inputs, like capital and technology), but it’s released on a timelier basis. And the latest numbers not only bring the story up to the fourth quarter of last year (preliminarily). They also incorporate revisions – some of which go back to 1947!

As a result, it’s now possible to take a new look at the nation’s productivity performance during the last three economic recoveries – the most economically valid, apples-to-apples way of comparing trends over significant time spans.

And here’s where the news isn’t good, as will be made clear from the following two tables. The first shows the cumulative productivity changes during those last three expansions before these latest revisions:

                                                                        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 09 thru final 3Q 19):     +12.74 percent        +9.42 percent

The second shows the same developments with the revisions.

                                                                         Non-farm business    Manufacturing

1990s expansion (2Q 1991-1Q 2001):              +23.75 percent        +44.68 percent

bubble expansion (4Q 2001-4Q 2007):             +16.58 percent        +30.92 percent

current expansion (2Q 09 thru final 3Q 19):     +12.74 percent          +6.32 percent

current expansion (2Q 09 thru prelim 4Q 19):  +13.44 percent          +6.11 percent

The big takeaway is that although the revisions leave the picture for both non-farm businesses (BLS’ main definition of the American economic universe) and manufacturing unchanged in terms of a long and substantial productivity slowdown, they downgrade manufacturing’s performance during the current recovery substantially. In fact, industry’s labor productivity growth is now reported to be about a third slower than previously thought.

Since it’s a presidential campaign year, I thought a Trump-Obama comparison would be appropriate, and here’s where the good news for Trump World, at the very least, comes in.

                                                                   Non-farm business          Manufacturing

last 12 Obama quarters                                 +3.31 percent                -2.27 percent

first 12 Trump quarters                                 +4.17 percent                -0.05 percent

The time frames used make sense because they represent identical numbers of quarters for each President that are also the closest to each other in the current (expansionary) business/economic cycle. The productivity performance under Mr. Trump hasn’t been gangbusters historically speaking for either sector of the economy. But it’s clearly been better than that registered during the most comparable Obama period.

Since most serious students of the economy agree that there’s lots of room for improvement in measuring productivity growth (especially for the services sectors), it would be quite the stretch for Mr. Trump to claim credit for these favorable numbers. Yet when have such substantive considerations ever stopped politicians from pretending they wield such power – for economic good or ill? So unless the productivity arrows start moving down markedly, Americans might finally hear something from the President about productivity before too long.