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Back in February, I wrote that although U.S. workers’ hourly wages were rising more slowly than the standard measure of consumer prices (the Consumer Price Index, or CPI), and therefore on that basis couldn’t be blamed for the recent, historically high inflation, there was one reason to be worried about the last few years’ healthy pay hikes: Such pay was rising faster than worker productivity.

I explained that this trend inevitably fueled inflation because “when businesses are in situations where wages are rising but their operations are becoming more efficient at a faster rate, they can maintain and even increase profits without passing higher costs on to their customers. When productivity is rising more slowly than inflation, this option isn’t available – or not nearly as readily.”

And more important than my views on the subject, these concerns have been expressed by Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank that has the federal government’s main inflation-fighting responsibilities.

So it’s discouraging to report that new government data on both pay and productivity have come out in the last two weeks, and they make clear that the pay-productivity gap has just been widening faster than ever.

The pay data come from the Labor Department’s latest Employment Cost Index (ECI), which tracks not only hourly wages but salaries and benefits, while the productivity figures come from Labor’s new release on labor productivity, which measures how much output a single worker turns out in a single hour. And conveniently, both releases take the story through the first quarter of this year.

The results? From the fourth quarter of last year through this year’s first quarter, total compensation for all private sector workers, the ECI increased by 1.42 percent, while labor productivity for non-farm businesses (the category most closely followed, and basically identical with the private sector) fell by 1.93 percent. That last number was labor productivity’s worst such performance since the third quarter of 1947. (As RealityChek regulars know, I focus on private sector workers because their pay levels largely reflect market forces, not politicians’ decisions, and consequently reveal more about the labor picture’s fundamentals.)  

The year-on-year statistics aren’t much better – if at all. Between the first quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year, the ECI for the private sector grew by 4.75 percent, but labor productivity dipped by 0.62 percent.

And since the U.S. economy began recovering from the first wave of the CCP Virus pandemic, during the third quarter of 2020, the private sector ECI is up by 6.61 percent, while labor productivity is down by 0.78 percent.

As also known by RealityChek readers, labor productivity isn’t the economy’s only measure of efficiency. Multifactor productivity is a broader, and therefore presumably more useful gauge. It’s not as easy to work with because its results only come out annually, and the latest only take the story up to the end of last year.

The picture is decidedly more encouraging – at least recently. From 2020-2021, multifactor productivity for non-farm businesses improved by 3.17 percent. But it still wasn’t good relatively speaking, since from the fourth quarter of 2020 through the fourth quarter of 2021, the private sector ECI increased by 4.38 percent.

Worse, from 2001 (when the Labor Department began the ECI) to last year, pay b that gauge was up 74 percent while non-farm business multifactor productivity had advanced by a mere 16.46 percent.  Therefore, clearly the recent pay and productivity numbers don’t simply stem from pandemic-related distortions of the economy. 

To repeat important points from last February’s post, the productivity lag doesn’t mean that U.S. workers overall don’t deserve nice-sized raises and better benefits, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re solely or largely to blame even for poor labor productivity growth. After all, managers are paid as handsomely as they are fundamentally to figure out how to make their employees more productive. Also, productivity is a barometer of economic performance that’s unusually difficult to determine precisely.

But the new figures do strengthen the case that labor costs bear significant responsibility for boosting inflation, and that a major fear surrounding overheated price increases – that inflation acquires powerful momentum as surging prices lead to big wage hike demands and vice versa, and create a spiralling effect that’s excuciatingly difficult to end without the Fed throwing the economy into recession. Just as depressingly, the new pay and productivity figures also strengthen the case that, unless the economy becomes a lot more productive very quickly, the sooner this harsh medicine is administered, the better for everyone in the long run.