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Since strong productivity increases are America’s best hope for improving living standards, sustainable prosperity and robust non-inflationary economic growth, it’s clearly bad news that the nation may be on the edge of a productivity growth cliff – and staring into a canyon. That’s the clear message being sent by the new official U.S. preliminary data on labor productivity for the second quarter of this year released by the Labor Department this morning.

At least as bad: The lousy labor productivity figures strengthen the case that even though U.S. wages aren’t rising nearly as fast as living cost, they still could be fueling some of the torrid inflation of the last year and a half or so.

There’s a possibility that this dreadful performance is just another hangover from the CCP Virus pandemic and related lockdowns and curbs on individuals’ voluntary activity (along with the massive covid relief measures provided by Washington), which has played havoc with the entire economy and the data used to monitor its health. But it’s crucial to remember that the nation is also suffering a long-term productivity growth slump, so any virus distortions aren’t reflected in the numbers may not be game-changing.

As known by RealityChek regulars, labor productivity is the narrower of the two measures of efficiency tracked by Labor, and measures the output of each worker per each hour on the job. The Department itself made clear how awful the second quarter results were for the non-farm business sector – the numbers that are followed most closely:

The 2.5-percent decline in labor productivity from the same quarter a year ago [actually, it was 2.55 percent] is the largest decline in this series, which begins in the first quarter of 1948.” (Actually, the Department’s own raw data tables go back to the first quarter of 1947.) Let’s all agree that a 75-year all-time worst is really alarming.

The quarterly figures were stomach-turning, too. Labor productivity sank at an annual rate of 4.71 percent sequentially – the fifth biggest such drop ever. Further, this followed on the heels of the first quarter’s sequential 7.64 percent nosedive – the second worst since the 12.26 percent crash of the third quarter of 1947.

And here’s some thoroughly depressing context: Such back-to-back quarterly declines are rare. Before that latest stretch, they – or longer labor productivity losing streaks – had only happened eleven times over the last three quarters of a century.

Two consecutive declines in labor productivity aren’t the longest such stretch on record. That dubious honor belongs to the five-quarter period between the second quarter of 1973 and the third quarter of 1974. But the latest cumulative quarterly deterioration of 12.26 percent at annual rates is the worst of all time. True, it’s just slightly greater than the 12.24 percent cumulative drop suffered during that 1973-74 productivity depression. But don’t forget – the current streak may not be over yet!

As for that 2.51 percent annual decline in labor productivity, the context here is completely gloomy, too. As with the sequential results, it represented the second straight worsening – following the 0.58 percent drop in the first quarter. And two or more straight annual labor productivity decreases have only happened six times before this morning’s release.

Also as with the quarter-to-quarter figures, a stretch of two straight decreases isn’t the longest ever. Between 1973 and 1974, annual productivity fell four consecutive times. But the current annual slump is the deepest since that which lasted between the first and third quarters of 1982. And of course, today’s slump isn’t over yet, either.

As I’ve written previously, productivity is the measure of economic performance in which most economists are least confident (especially in service industries that make up the vast bulk of the U.S. economy). Further, labor productivity is a narrower measure of efficiency than total factor productivity, which measures output as a function of a wide range of inputs used by business (not only workers but capital, technology, materials, etc.) And today’s second quarter results will be revised next month (which recently I mistakenly reported as the date for these preliminary numbers), with the latest set of (annual) revisions coming this fall.

But most legitimate doubts about the productivity data mainly concern their precision, not the direction they show. And all-time worsts and near-worsts surely can’t be mainly attributed to measurement flaws. And as for the total factor results, for decades, they’ve been no great shakes, either, as made clear in the above linked RealityChek post. Maybe the revisions will substantially brighten the picture?

So far, though, that’s just a “maybe.” The best information available indicates that America’s long-time productivity woes are taking a big turn for the worse, and that in combination with recent wage increases could be embedding unacceptably high inflation – and stagnating living standards – into the U.S. economy’s foreseeable future.