Tortuous Path to Productivity

August 20, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

Medieval public beheading

There is a silver lining to the deep, tortuous job cuts in this severe recession and it is called “productivity.” Those fortunate enough to retain their jobs are forced to become more productive. In layman’s terms, productivity simply is output divided by hours worked.

Unemployment dropped to 9.4% in July, thanks in part to a decline in the job losses to -247,000 from a peak in January of -741,000 job losses. During this period of job-loss cratering, we managed to sustain a decline of a mere -1% in Q2 Gross Domestic Product (GDP). How could we lose more than 6 million jobs since the beginning of 2008 and still be on a path to recovery? A large contributor is our friend, productivity, which came in at a whopping +6.4% in Q2 – the highest in six years.

Productivity increased in part because of a slashing of work-hours by employers. Employees that have maintained employment are therefore forced to produce more output (goods and services) per unit hour of employment. In this severe recession that we are pulling out of, the American worker is being stretched like a rubber band. At some point, the “Law of Diminishing Returns” kicks in and employers are forced to hire new employees to meet demand levels, or the rubber band will snap.

The prime ways of increasing productivity are raising the amount of capital per worker (capital intensity) and also elevating the workers’ average level of skill, education, and training (labor quality).

Not only are the surviving U.S. workers toiling harder, they are not getting pay increases large enough to offset inflation. For example, Q2 hourly compensation increased +0.2%, but after accounting for inflation, real hourly compensation was actually down -1.1%.

As the MarketWatch article points out:

The early stages of recovery are typically the best for productivity: Output is rising, but cost-cutting plans are still being implemented… Productivity gains are the key to higher living standards, higher wages, increased profits and low inflation… Productivity averaged about 2.7% annually from 1948 to 1970, then slowed to 1.6% from 1971 to 1995. Since then, productivity has grown about 2.5% annually. In 2008, productivity increased 1.8%.

 

Productivity allows the U.S. to produce more goods and services with fewer workers. For instance, the MarketWatch article also highlights the U.S. is producing 20% more output relative to a decade ago, yet employment has not changed at all over that time period.

We are certainly not out of the woods when it comes to the recession, and for those lucky enough to maintain employment, they are being asked (forced) to work more for less pay. These productivity improvements feel like torture to the survivors, however this pain will eventually lead to economic gain.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

Entry filed under: economy. Tags: , , , , , .

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