Well, that didn’t last long. After two straight quarters of encouraging growth, U.S. labor productivity is back in the doldrums, with this morning’s preliminary data from the Labor Department revealing a drop during the third quarter of this year.
At least, however, these latest figures on the narrowest measure of the economy’s efficiency, and ability to grow healthily and generate sustainably rising living standards contained a novel recent twist: U.S.-based manufacturing outperformed the Labor Department’s main definition of the broader economy – the “nonfarm business sector.”
Moreover, the results pointed to a trend I hadn’t recognized till now: Manufacturing’s transformation from a national productivity leader into a laggard, which began during the current economy-wide recovery (and probably began during the Great Recession preceding it) is heavily concentrated in nondurable goods manufacturing. Labor productivity in the larger durable goods super-sector is still growing faster than that of nonfarm businesses, though the gap between the two has shrunk decidedly.
As known by RealityChek regulars, labor productivity measures how much output an American worker turns out for each hour he or she is on the job. It’s not as broad a gauge as “total factor productivity” (AKA “multifactor productivity), which measures output per hour resulting from a wide array of inputs, including not only human beings but capital, energy, materials, and others. But the labor productivity numbers come out on a timelier basis.
The news for the second quarter’s final (for now) data was pretty good. The increase in nonfarm business labor productivity was upgraded from a 2.3 percent annualized rate to 2.5 percent. Manufacturing’s 2.2 percent annualized drop, however, was revised down to a 2.4 percent decrease – its worse such performance since the four percent plunge in the third quarter of 2017.
This morning’s first initial read on third quarter labor productivity reversed this pattern. Nonfarm business labor productivity was down 0.3 percent on an annualized basis – worse than the 0.1 percent dip for manufacturing, and its first shrinkage since the fourth quarter of 2015 (when it fell by 3.5 percent annualized).
But it was the more detailed figures on manufacturing’s third quarter that really caught my eye. Durable goods sectors’ labor productivity performance was in the black, growing at a 1.2 percent annual pace. But the nondurables result was deep in the red – down 1.5 percent.
Nor are these results aberrations, as the table below shows. It presents the total labor productivity growth rates during the previous two economic recoveries and the current upturn (to ensure the best, apples-to-apples findings). The main takeaway: Both super-sectors have suffered major labor productivity growth rates declines since the 1990s expansion. But during the current recovery (the longest on record in the United States), labor productivity growth in nondurables plummeted much faster than in durables (which wasn’t killing it on this front, either).
Durable mfg Nondurable mfg
1990s expansion (2Q 1991-1Q 2001): +66.11 percent +23.81 percent
bubble expansion (4Q 2001-4Q 2007): +34.59 percent +24.01 percent
current expansion (2Q 2009 thru final 2Q 19): +15.37 percent +5.83 percent
current expansion (2Q 2009 thru prelim 3Q 19): +15.71 percent +5.44 percent
Moreover, as made clear from the table below, and its comparison of labor productivity growth in nonfarm businesses and in manufacturing as a whole during the same periods, however poor the durables’ performance, it’s still better than that of nonfarm businesses in an absolute sense. Nonetheless, its lead is down considerably.
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 2Q 19): +12.85 percent +9.00 percent
current expansion (2Q 09 thru prelim 3Q 19): +12.77 percent +8.97 percent
Today’s productivity read was the first of three to be released for the third quarter (additional revisions will be made down the road), so it’s possible that the overall labor productivity result will wind up being an upturn rather than a downturn. But for now, any talk of a new U.S. productivity growth revival looks premature.