Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Productivity Puzzle (excerpt)

There is something very odd about the productivity numbers. They don’t make much sense. Productivity growth seems awfully weak given all the news articles about robots, automation, drones, the Internet of Things, and all the apps that are enabling everyone to work more efficiently.

The real output of the nonfinancial business (NFB) sector recovered from the last recession during Q4-2011, when it first exceeded the previous cyclical peak. Since then through Q1-2015, it is up 10.3%. Over this same period, NFB productivity is up only 2.3%. In other words, an 8.0% increase in hours worked accounted for most of the increase in output. On a y/y basis, real NFB output has been hovering around 3% since mid-2010. Over the same period, hours worked has been growing around 2%, while productivity has been rising around just 1%.

My hunch is that the output of the services-producing industries may be undercounted. Alternatively, productivity may be particularly weak in these industries. The easiest and best productivity gains in services-producing industries may have been gotten, and extracting more out of them is getting harder to do. Here are the relevant data points:

(1) The ratio of real GDP for goods to goods-producing payroll employment was at a near-record high of $267,810 per worker during Q1 (saar), up 1.7% y/y. The similar ratio for services rose to $81,372 per worker, down 0.1% y/y.

(2) Since the start of the data in 1947, the goods-producing “productivity” ratio is up a whopping 908%, while the comparable rate for services is up only 77%.

Today's Morning Briefing: Everyday Low Price. (1) EDLP. (2) Walmart stuffing labor costs down supply chain. (3) Is the Phillips Curve right about wage inflation, but wrong about price inflation? (4) S&P 500 Hypermarkets & Super Centers are getting squeezed. (5) Other retailers still showing upbeat metrics. (6) Is there something wrong with the productivity stats? (7) Productivity ratio falling recently in services. (8) Global economy muddling along in the mud. (9) US economy still has some soft spots. (10) Eurozone’s M-PMIs more upbeat than actual production. (11) Submerging economies. (More for subscribers.)

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