MacroScope

Fading productivity could hurt U.S. job growth

RBC economist Tom Porcelli is such a curmudgeon these days. Still, given that he was one of the few economists that accurately predicted the possibility of a negative reading on fourth quarter GDP, maybe it’s not a bad idea to listen to what he has to say.

This week, he expressed concern about a rapid decline in U.S. productivity – and that was before data showing U.S. nonfarm productivity fell in the fourth quarter by the most in nearly two years.

Productivity declined at a 2 percent annual rate, the sharpest drop since the first quarter of 2011 and a larger fall than the 1.3 percent forecast in a Reuters poll.

For Porcelli, this could spell trouble for the U.S. labor market:

Declining productivity tends to portend softening employment gains at the margin – with firms subsequently aiming to regain productivity and protect the bottom line. Recall that the decline in Q1 2012 led to a discernible slowing in NFP growth – from an average of 262K in Q1 to 108K the following quarter. Bottom line is that a sharp contraction in productivity should be viewed as a cautionary tale for the jobs backdrop. Something that could be exacerbated if the consumer pulls back enough in Q1 that it has real negative reverberations to Q1 corporate earnings.

Not to mention the prospect of sharp spending cuts set to kick in next month that could deal a heavy blow to the economy.

Ambling through the archives: Don’t blame the deficit, 1983 edition

The battle over the amount and nature of government spending is the focus of the current U.S.presidential campaign and is unlikely to go away even after the November election is well in the rear view mirror.

In such a setting, a paper presented by economist Albert M. Wojnilower at the October 1983 Bald Peak Conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, sounds as timely today as it did then. Wojnilower, then chief economist at First Boston, prepared his “Don’t Blame the Deficit” talk as a commentary on “Implications of the Government Deficit for U.S. Capital Formation,” a paper by Benjamin M. Friedman, a professor of political economy at Harvard.

Here is the jist of Wojnilower’s argument, made almost three decades ago when the Ronald Reagan presidency was almost three years old: If the United States is under-investing, the “villain” is not the Federal budget deficit, he said.

The productively disinflationary American worker

Strong productivity may be good for an economy’s long-term growth prospects. But it’s not always great for workers in the near-run, since it literally means firms are squeezing more out of each employee. In reality, rapid productivity growth can make it harder for workers to get new jobs or bargain for raises.

The benefits of operating efficiently are obvious enough: Productive firms will have more money left over to invest, which should lead to more job creation in the future. Except lately, that future seems never to come, giving rise to the somewhat oxymoronic notion of a jobless recovery.

Millan Mulraine at TD Securities explains:

In many ways, the 2009 and 2002 economic rebounds are very similar in that both can be characterized as largely ‘jobless recoveries’. However, the compensating boost from capital investment – which was a defining feature of the 2003 economic recovery and a key underpinning for economic and productivity growth during the 2003-2007 period – has been largely missing during this cycle. The missing boost from capital investment activity has reinforced the subpar economic performance over the past two years, and will portend poorly for longer-term economic growth potential if the trend continues.

The U.S. productivity farce

Economists don’t agree on much but they do tend to converge on one idea – productivity improvements are the key to long-term prosperity. Except that who benefits from productivity increases matters as much as the efficiency gains themselves, according to two reports from the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

The first finds that rising income inequality in the United States means that the benefits of better productivity are accruing mainly to the very wealthy. The EPI offers this startling nugget of data as basic food for thought: U.S. productivity grew 80.4 percent from 1973 to 2011, while average hourly compensation rose just 39.2 percent in the same period, and median compensation, which excludes outliers, gained a paltry 10.7 percent.

Writes Lawrence Mishel, EPI president and author of the reports:

Productivity growth, which is the growth of the output of goods and services per hour worked, provides the basis for the growth of living standards. However, the experience of the vast majority of workers in recent decades has been that productivity growth actually provides only the potential for rising living standards: Recent history, especially since 2000, has shown that wages and compensation for the typical worker and income growth for the typical family have lagged tremendously behind the nation’s fast productivity growth.

Transforming the FIRE Economy

What went wrong and where we should go are topical post-crisis discussions and many books have been dedicated to tackle this question.

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Eric Janszen, U.S.-based economic analyst, is the latest in analysing the crisis and its aftermath. He thinks that the problems of the global economy are rooted in the flaws of the debt-driven FIRE Economy (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) and the only way out of the crisis is to change the fundamental approach.

“The entire economic system has been glued together by one profound fantasy: Finance can substitute for production, and credit for savings. Private debt, of households and businesses, and public debt, of governments federal, state, and local, foreign and domestic, piled up like snow by a blizzard of lending through mortgages, bonds offerings, and securitizations over decades. It then avalanched upon us,” Janszen wrote in his new book.