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What Seems to Be Holding Back Labor Productivity Growth, and Why It Matters
The Atlanta Fed recently released its online Annual Report. In his video introduction to the report, President Dennis Lockhart explained that the economic growth we have experienced in recent years has been driven much more by growth in hours worked (primarily due to employment growth) than by growth in the output produced per hour worked (so-called average labor productivity). For example, over the past three years, business sector output growth averaged close to 3 percent a year. Labor productivity growth accounted for only about 0.75 percentage point of these output gains. The rest was due primarily to growth in employment.
The recent performance of labor productivity stands in stark contrast to historical experience. Business sector labor productivity growth averaged 1.4 percent over the past 10 years. This is well below the labor productivity gains of 3 percent a year experienced during the information technology productivity boom from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s.
John Fernald and collaborators at the San Francisco Fed have decomposed labor productivity growth into some economically relevant components. The decomposition can be used to provide some insight into why labor productivity growth has been so low recently. The four factors in the decomposition are:
- Changes in the composition of the workforce (labor quality), weighted by labor's share of income
- Changes in the amount and type of capital per hour that workers have to use (capital deepening), weighted by capital's share of income
- Changes in the cyclical intensity of utilization of labor and capital resources (utilization)
- Everything else—all the drivers of labor productivity growth that are not embodied in the other factors. This component is often called total factor productivity.
The chart below displays the decomposition of labor productivity for various time periods. The bar at the far right is for the last three years (the next bar is for the past 10 years). The colored segments in each bar sum to average annual labor productivity growth for each time period.
Taken at face value, the chart suggests that a primary reason for the sluggish average labor productivity growth we have seen over the past three years is that capital spending growth has not kept up with growth in hours worked—a reduction in capital deepening. Declining capital deepening is highly unusual.
Do we think this sluggishness will persist? No. In our medium-term outlook, we at the Atlanta Fed expect that factors that have held down labor productivity growth (particularly relatively weak capital spending) will dissipate as confidence in the economy improves further and firms increase the pace of investment spending, including on various types of equipment and intellectual capital. We currently anticipate that the trend in business sector labor productivity growth will improve to a level of about 2 percent a year, midway between the current pace and the pace experienced during the 1995–2004 period of strong productivity gains. That is, we are not productivity pessimists. Time will tell, of course.
Clearly, this optimistic labor productivity outlook is not without risk. For one thing, we have been somewhat surprised that labor productivity has remained so low for so long during the economic recovery. Moreover, the first quarter data don't suggest that a turning point has occurred. Gross domestic product (GDP) in the first quarter is likely to come in on the weak side (the latest GDPNow tracking estimate here is currently signaling essentially no GDP growth in the first quarter), whereas employment growth is likely to be quite robust (for example, the ADP employment report suggested solid employment gains). As a result, we anticipate another weak reading for labor productivity in the first quarter. We are not taking this as refutation of our medium-term outlook.
Continued weakness in labor productivity would raise many important questions about the outlook for both economic growth and wage and price inflation. For example, our forecast of stronger productivity gains also implies a similarly sized pickup in hourly wage growth. To see this, note that unit labor cost (the wage bill per unit of output) is thought to be an important factor in business pricing decisions. The following chart shows a decomposition of average growth in business sector unit labor costs into the part due to nominal hourly wage growth and the part offset by labor productivity growth:
The 1975–84 period experienced high unit labor costs because labor productivity growth didn't keep up with wage growth. In contrast, the relatively low and stable average unit labor cost growth we have experienced since the 1980s has been due to wage growth largely offset by gains in labor productivity. Our forecast of stronger labor productivity growth implies faster wage growth as well. That said, a rise in wage growth absent a pickup in labor productivity growth poses an upside risk to our inflation outlook.
Of course, the data on productivity and its components are estimates. It is possible that the data are not accurately reflecting reality in real time. For example, colleagues at the Board of Governors suggest that measurement issues associated with the price of high-tech equipment may be causing business investment to be somewhat understated. That is, capital deepening may not be as weak as the current data indicate. In a follow-up blog to this one, my Atlanta Fed colleague Patrick Higgins will explore the possibility that the weak labor productivity we have recently experienced is likely to be revised away with subsequent revisions to GDP and hours data.
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