why productivity matters

This morning the Labor department issued its report for 2Q16 on productivity and costs.  The release shows that productivity in the US dropped for the third quarter in a row, coming in at -0.5% at an annual rate.

Why does this matter?

what productivity is

Productivity is a measure of the amount of output the average worker produces in a given period of time.  The government gets its aggregate figure by dividing its estimate of real output during a period by its estimate of total hours worked.

why it’s important

In broad terms, GDP can grow in two ways.  Either there can be more people working to make stuff, or workers can become more productive, that is, make more output per unit of time.

Worker productivity is not boosted by exhorting employees to make superhuman efforts from 9 to 5, as at least one of my former bosses firmly believed.  Instead, productivity increases come either from capital investment that provides workers with better tools or from workers getting training/education that allows them to work smarter.

consider Japan,

the poster child for advanced country GDP dysfunction.  The domestic workforce there is shrinking by about 0.7% per year.  So the country has to increase the productivity of existing workers by the same amount simply to prevent GDP from falling!

If we assume that continuing capital investment can increase productivity by 1.0% a year, which for Japan would be saying a lot, the country is locked into at best a miniscule 0.3% long-term annual GDP growth rate.  In other words, it is perpetually teetering on the edge of recession.

There’s no evidence of any increase in the Japanese birth rate;  in fact, it has been going in the other direction for a long time.  One obvious solution to stagnation is to allow immigration.  However, Japan has a xenophobic aversion to admitting foreign workers.  It’s opposed to allowing women having a significant role in corporations, too.   So it remains stuck in the same economic rut it has been in since 1990.

as for the US…

Just as the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot actions of the Japanese central bank in dealing with that country’s first decades (tightening policy too soon and nipping recovery in the bud), its response to its demographic dilemma should also be a cautionary tale for the EU and, ultimately, for the US.  In both areas, the same demographic forces are at work, though at a less advanced stage–and with the work force younger in the US than in the EU.

measurement problems?

In the early days of the personal computer era, productivity statistics showed the same kind of lackluster progression that they are exhibiting at present.  That turned out to be a problem with how productivity was being measured.  Maybe the same will turn out to be the case with the technological change the internet is bringing.  Or it may be that in creative destruction, the second part comes first.

a practical application

The long-term growth rate of the US economy is now about 2%, comprised in roughly equal parts of growth of the workforce and productivity increases. The Republican economic platform maintains that the GDP growth rate of the US can be doubled by:

–lowering the number of foreign workers who can enter the US and compelling, say, 5% of the current workforce to leave the country, and

–reintroducing obsolete 1970-era tools to American factories, attempting to create a domestic market for output by placing high tariffs on imports of modern products.

I’m not sure how fewer workers + older equipment = growth.  More immigration + worker training/retraining might be better.

2 responses

  1. Hi. Apart from the perspective of technology adoption, can we dissect how the shift of economic drivers affects the measure of productivity? For example, as an emerging country develops from agriculture to low cost manufacturing then to higher value added manufacturing then to service-based consumption. For US, what is the next economic driver? Thanks

    • Key questions. As far as emerging countries are concerned, I think the post-WWII development path blazed by Japan is well enough known that investors try to benchmark Country A against Country B in terms of production efficiency, cost and output quality and don’t worry too much about productivity in the abstract. The issue is trickier with cutting-edge development, where innovation may reduce the price of output. In this case, output/worker (productivity) may end up falling, even though everyone is better off in the new environment. The analogous case is that cars stuck in a traffic jam with their motors running are consuming fuel–and thus adding to GDP–even though nothing productive is getting done.
      A slightly different question than yours about the US–where do we have a competitive advantage? I think the answer is in areas like biotechnology, medical technology, product marketing/advertising, software of all types, and entertainment. I wish I knew for sure what the next big economic driver is. What do you think?

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