Monday, July 20, 2015

The Productivity Puzzle (excerpt)

There is widespread concern about the slow growth in nonfarm business productivity. Over the past 20 quarters (five years) since Q1-2010, it is up only 0.5% on average during each of the Q1-to-Q1 periods spanning this period: 0.4% through Q1-2011, 0.9% through Q1-2012, 0.5% through Q1-2013, 0.6% through Q1-2014, and 0.3% through Q1-2015. That’s awfully weak growth.

There are lots of different reasons to be concerned. Fed Chair Janet Yellen is worried that wage gains are being held down by weak productivity. Bond investors are worried that inflation might rebound if tightening labor markets push up labor costs, with wages rising faster than productivity. In this scenario, stock investors would fret that profit margins would be squeezed if labor costs rise faster than prices. Progressives are saying that companies are using their cash and borrowings to buy back their shares rather than invest in productivity-enhancing capital equipment. They claim that’s worsening income inequality.

In other words, everyone wants to see productivity growing at a faster pace. The key reason is that productivity is the key determinant of consumers’ purchasing power (i.e., real income) and the standard of living (i.e., consumption). However, there are measures of these two variables suggesting that the productivity problem may not be as serious as widely believed. Consider the following:

(1) Long term. First, let’s keep in mind that technological innovations--which are the key drivers of productivity--tend to be lumpy. They don’t happen continuously over time, and they take time to be adopted once they are ready for prime time. We can see this by looking at the growth in productivity over 24-quarter periods. Since the early 1950s, productivity grew especially fast during the 1960s and the late 1990s and the first few years of the next decade. Before and after these bursts, the pace of productivity growth was relatively subpar.

(2) Short term. On a shorter-term basis, productivity jumped 5.2% from Q1-2009 through Q1-2010 before the slowdown since then. That boosts the average productivity growth rate a full percentage point to 1.3% per Q1-to-Q1 period over this six-year time span. I constructed a good proxy for productivity by dividing real GDP by the average weekly hours index in the private sector. I did so because there are no official productivity measures for goods and services industries in real GDP.

I constructed proxy measures of productivity in goods and services industries by dividing their contributions to real GDP by their average weekly hours indexes. Both proxies jumped during 2009. Goods productivity has continued to trend higher at a slower pace, but services productivity has dropped 5.7% from Q4-2009 through Q1-2015! That seems very odd and suggests that the government’s bean counters may be having an especially tough time counting the beans in services.

(3) Freebies. “[T]he U.S. doesn’t have a productivity problem, it has a measurement problem.” That’s according to a 7/16 WSJ article titled “Silicon Valley Doesn’t Believe U.S. Productivity Is Down.” It reviews the contrarian views of Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist. The article notes, “[T]he only way goods and services move the official U.S. productivity needle is when consumers and businesses pay for them. Anything free, no matter how much it improves everyday life, isn’t included.” Many of today’s time-saving technologies are free, like some location-based apps, cloud computing, and robust search engines.

On the other hand, the first posted comment about the article observes: “I suspect that all the productivity gains provided by Google and the like are more than offset by the ridiculous amount of time people spend on FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram etc writing about the cute thing their dog did today, or posting a picture of what they had for lunch...”

Today's Morning Briefing: Opie Kicks the Can. (1) The best can kickers on the road. (2) Going fishing on a summer’s day down a country road. (3) Mario and Opie. (4) Between “aw, shucks” and “shock and awe.” (5) Another panic sell-off followed by another relief rally. (6) Marty Zweig’s famous mantra on steroids. (7) Another better-than-expected earnings season, especially ex-Energy. (8) Putting together the pieces of the productivity puzzle. (9) Productivity has a long boom-bust cycle because innovation is lumpy. (10) Our productivity proxies suggest bean counters aren’t counting all the beans in services. (11) The freebie problem. (12) “Mr. Holmes” (+ +). (More for subscribers.)

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