more on productivity

Last Friday, Jim Paulsen, a strategist from Wells Fargo whose work I like, gave an interview with CNBC about productivity.  His take: US productivity is being substantially understated.

The interview contains an interesting chart–one well worth checking out–in which Mr. Paulsen tracks a measure of wage growth with one of productivity.  Historically, the two have moved in tandem  …until 2012.  At that time wage growth begins to accelerate …and productivity starts to drop like a stone.

His argument is that if the productivity figures are as bad as they look, employers would never be raising wages at anything like the rate they are.

To get his results, Mr. Paulsen has had to do two things:  he uses real (meaning after inflation is subtracted) wage growth and productivity; and he uses deviation from trend (sort of like a rate of change) rather than the wage and productivity figures themselves.

As a general rule, I don’t like charts (because you can manipulate the axes to add or subtract drama), and I worry when the key relationships are in derivative data.  Still, I think the Paulsen argument is right.  Wages are rising in a way that strongly suggests there’s something wrong with the official productivity calculations.

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.