US: Productivity and Costs

Tue Aug 11 07:30:00 CDT 2015

Consensus Consensus Range Actual Previous Revised
Nonfarm productivity - Q/Q change - SAAR 1.6% 0.5% to 2.5% 1.3% -3.1% -1.1%
Unit labor costs - Q/Q change - SAAR 0.5% -1.2% to 3.7% 0.5% 6.7% 2.3%

A bounce back for output gave first-quarter productivity a lift, up a quarter-to-quarter 1.3 percent vs a revised decline of 1.1 percent in the first quarter. The bounce in output also held down unit labor costs which rose 0.5 percent vs 2.3 percent in the first quarter.

Output in the second quarter rose 2.8 percent vs a depressed 0.5 percent in the first quarter. Compensation rose 1.8 percent, up from 1.1 percent in the first quarter, while hours worked were little changed, up 1.5 percent vs 1.6 in the first quarter.

Looking at year-on-year rates, growth in productivity is very slight at only plus 0.3 percent while costs do show some pressure, up 2.1 percent in a reading, along with the rise in compensation, that will be welcome by Federal Reserve officials who are hoping that gains in wages will help offset weakness in commodity costs and help give inflation a needed boost.

Market Consensus Before Announcement
Productivity and costs are both expected to posts increases in the second quarter, up 1.6 percent for productivity and reflecting the bounce back for GDP and up 0.5 percent for costs. But Econoday's sample is uncertain for costs with the low estimate at a steep minus 1.2 percent. Should costs cool, it would follow large gains in the prior two quarters.

Productivity measures the growth of labor efficiency in producing the economy's goods and services. Unit labor costs reflect the labor costs of producing each unit of output. Both are followed as indicators of future inflationary trends.

Productivity growth is critical because it allows for higher wages and faster economic growth without inflationary consequences. In periods of robust economic growth, productivity ensures that inflation will remain well behaved despite tight labor markets. Productivity growth is also a key factor in helping to increase the overall wealth of an economy since real wage gains can be made when workers are more productive per hour.

Productivity and labor cost trends have varied over the decades. In the late 1990s, some economists asserted that dramatic productivity advances (based on new technologies) were then allowing the economy to sustain a much faster pace of growth than previously thought possible. Initially, some Fed officials expressed skepticism but later decided that productivity gains had helped boost economic growth and potential GDP growth during the 1990s. That is, the economy could grow faster than previously believed without igniting inflation.

Determining the source of productivity gains has become trickier over the last decade as new technology continues to be incorporated into production - not just in the U.S. but overseas also. Similarly, retraining U.S. workers has been sporadic. Not just low skill jobs are outsourced but now many highly skilled jobs such as programming and accounting are as well. Nonetheless, highly skilled professional jobs have been increasingly difficult to fill during times of high demand. Despite the cross currents in labor market trends, long-term productivity gains are important for maintaining growth in labor income and keeping inflation low.

But in the short-term, output and hours worked can shift sharply just due to cyclical swings in the economy. During the onset of recession, output typically falls before hours worked. This can result in a temporary drop in productivity and a spike in unit labor costs. So, while long-term productivity determines the "speed limit" for long-term growth, one should not be misled by short-term cyclical gyrations in productivity numbers as reflecting the true, underlying trend.