Some more hard U.S. economic data came in this morning, and it looked pretty good. Even better, the news concerned productivity growth, which is widely viewed as the key to ensuring that the nation’s living standards can rise acceptably on a sustainable – as opposed to a bubble-ized – basis.
According to the Labor Department, America’s labor productivity in the second quarter of this year rose somewhat faster than was initially reported. Unfortunately, though, the economy still has a long way to go before it returns to the productivity growth rates it’s generated historically.
As RealityChek regulars know, labor productivity is the narrowest of the two gauges used by the U.S. government to measure this key indicator; it tells us how much output each American worker generates per hour on the job. Multifactor productivity (also called total factor productivity) shows output as a product of many more inputs (such as capital and energy and materials), but these numbers are more difficult to calculate, and come out with a greater time lag.
And although most intellectually honest economists admit that measuring productivity is one of their most challenging tasks, even these statistics are probably more reliable than “soft data” – the various private sector surveys that purport to measure business and consumer sentiment.
Today’s report judges that labor productivity for the non-farm business sector (the Labor Department’s main proxy for the entire economy) grew sequentially in the second quarter at an annualized rate of 1.53 percent. That’s better than the 0.99 percent first estimated and the strongest result since the 2.46 percent achieved in the third quarter of last year.
Second quarter labor productivity growth for manufacturing was upgraded, too – from 2.44 percent annualized quarter-to-quarter to 2.82 percent. And those are the best quarterly manufacturing results since the 3.20 percent spurt in the first quarter of 2012.
The Labor Department left unrevised the first quarter’s miserable 0.13 percent annualized non-farm business sequential productivity growth, and slightly downgraded manufacturing’s comparably poor first quarter improvement to 0.19 percent annualized. But the second quarter numbers are genuinely encouraging.
Still, do they signal the strong productivity revival the U.S. economy urgently needs? My crystal ball is no clearer than anyone else’s. All I can do is point out what a heavy lift this would be. Here are the non-farm business productivity growth performances for the last three economic recoveries (including the current expansion). As always, the best apples-to-apples data comes from measuring economic performance during similar phases of the business and economic cycle:
2Q 1991 to 1Q 2001: +23.25 percent
4Q 2001 to 4Q 2007: +16.03 percent
2Q 2009 to present: +8.65 percent
And here are the same figures for manufacturing:
2Q 1991 to 1Q 2001: +46.81 percent
4Q 2001 to 4Q 2007: +41.23 percent
2Q 2009 to present: +22.33 percent
So even with the latest improvements, labor productivity is advancing during this recovery at only roughly half the rate of its most recent predecessors. And the current expansion has been considerably longer than the previous recovery, and nearly as long as the 1990s recovery.
I’m not saying that no one should be optimistic about the United States significantly closing this gap going forward. But it’s still big enough that, so far, this expectation does seem to be a leap of faith.