BLS: Below Trend the Us Productivity Slowdown Since the Great Recession

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BLS: Below Trend the Us Productivity Slowdown Since the Great Recession
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  1 January 2017 | Vol. 6 / No. 2 PRODUCTIVITY Below trend: the U.S. productivity slowdown since the Great Recession By Shawn Sprague In the span of just six quarters between 2007 and 2009, nonfarm business output declined by $753 billion and 8.1 million jobs were lost. This period, known as the Great Recession, was the worst American recession since the Great Depression. The U.S. economy has been recovering from this historic decline for 7 years and is now in the midst of the one of the longest business cycles of the post–World War II (WWII) era. At this point, there  are enough data for us to see how this business cycle is shaping up compared with past cycles, and we may ask, “How well, exactly, are we doing?” and “How much have we recovered, up to this point in this cycle?” The  productivity measures published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are very useful in addressing these questions, because they make connections between important economic indicators, including output,  U.S. BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS 2 employment, labor hours, worker compensation, and inflation. With regard to labor productivity itself, it has become clear that the United States is in one of its slowest-growth periods since the end of WWII.This issue of Beyond the Numbers analyzes the historically slow U.S. labor productivity growth observed during the current business cycle and addresses the implications for the U.S. economy. What is labor productivity? Labor productivity is a measure of economic performance that compares the amount of goods and services produced (output) with the number of labor hours used in producing those goods and services. It is defined mathematically as real output per labor hour, and growth occurs when output increases faster than labor hours. Labor productivity growth can be estimated from the difference in growth rates between output and hours worked. For example, if output is rising by 3 percent and hours are rising by 2 percent, then labor productivity is growing by 1 percent.Technological advances, greater investment in machinery and equipment by businesses, increases in worker skill and experience, and other improvements to production can all lead to labor productivity growth. 1  The labor productivity measure encompasses the overall contribution of all of these advances over a given period. BLS publishes quarterly and annual series of labor productivity for major sectors of the U.S. economy beginning with data for 1947. 2 So, why is it important to measure productivity? This is because productivity growth has the potential to lead to improved living standards for those participating in an economy, in the form of higher income, greater leisure time, or a mixture of both. With gains in labor productivity, an economy is able to produce increasingly more goods and services for a given number of hours of work. These gains in efficiency make it possible for an economy to achieve growth in labor income, profits and capital gains of businesses, and public sector revenue. Moreover, as labor productivity grows, it may be possible for all of these factors to increase simultaneously, without gains in one coming at the cost of one of the others. Also, looked at another way, gains in labor productivity may allow for increased leisure time because, with higher productivity, an economy can produce the same amount of goods and services in fewer work hours and, in some cases, even produce more goods and services in fewer work hours. 3 However, if productivity fails to grow significantly—as has been the case in recent years—those participating in  an economy are left with a level of goods and services that fails to grow substantially, making it more difficult to attain widespread gains in income. It is thus important to track labor productivity, because it is the benchmark for potential gains in income of U.S. workers and shareholders. How are we doing at this point in the current business cycle? Now let us look at the productivity growth data of the current business cycle. 4  Why are we looking at business cycles, you may be wondering? This is because, being based on the highly cyclical output and hours data, productivity data tend to possess a cyclical element. Thus, it makes sense to compare periods that take this feature of the data into account and that each contain one recession and one expansion. This approach allows for consistent and standardized comparisons of productivity trends through time.  U.S. BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS 3 During the current business cycle, which started in the fourth quarter of 2007, labor productivity has grown at an annualized rate of 1.1 percent. This growth rate is notably low compared with the rates of the 10 completed business cycles since 1947—only a brief six-quarter cycle during the early 1980s posted a cyclical growth rate  that low (also increasing 1.1 percent). Of course, the current business cycle is not yet over, and its rate of growth is likely to change as more quarters of data are added. However, an analysis up to this point is warranted, given that this business cycle is now the fourth-longest cycle since 1947. In addition, comparing the current cycle with the completed cycles enables us to get a sense of the extent of the growth we will need to achieve during the remainder of this cycle in order to catch up to historical trends. Having this context will allow us to better gauge how well our economy is doing in the coming months and years.The growth rates of labor productivity, output, and hours for all business cycles since 1947, including the average-cycle rates, 5  are shown in chart 1. We see that the labor productivity growth rate (shown in red) for the current business cycle is the lowest productivity growth rate in the chart, sharing that distinction with a brief six-quarter cycle in the early 1980s which also had 1.1-percent growth. Also noteworthy is the output growth rate of the current cycle: at 1.4 percent, it is the second-lowest output growth rate of the historical period 6  and well below the average-cycle output growth rate of 3.4 percent. Hours also had low growth, posting a 0.3-percent rate over the period, below its average-cycle rate of 1.1 percent.While hours growth during the current business cycle was 0.8 percentage point below its business cycle average of 1.1 percent, output growth was 2.0 percentage points  below its business cycle average of 3.4  U.S. BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS 4 percent. So, although both hours and output grew at below-average rates during this cycle, the fact that output grew notably slower   than its historical average is what yields the historically low labor productivity growth rate of 1.1 percent.Now let us look more deeply into the output and hours data and see how each has been moving during the current business cycle relative to its historical trend and how each of these series is reflected in the low labor productivity growth of this cycle. Output growth in the current business cycle The below-average rate of output growth in the current business cycle had contributions from both phases of the cycle: the Great Recession and the subsequent recovery. The Great Recession had the largest total decline in output of any recession in the post–WWII era (a 6.7-percent overall decline). Following that historic decline, the  recovery has had the lowest output growth rate (2.6 percent per year) of any recovery since 1947. These two factors have combined to yield an output growth rate for this cycle (1.4 percent per year) that is very low by historical standards. Only the brief 1980 cycle had a lower rate, and all nine other cycles had growth rates of at least 2.5 percent, well above the output growth rate of the current cycle. (Compare the dark blue bars in chart 1.) A key aspect of the recovery thus far is that, not only has output growth been well below historical trends, but it is even further behind the growth rates necessary to overcome the effect of the massive decline in output during the Great Recession. To counteract such a large decline and lift the current cycle’s growth rate back up to  historical averages, output would have had to grow much faster than average  during the recovery. But output has done the opposite thus far, growing more slowly than average during the recovery.You may be wondering how large of an output growth rate during the recovery would have been required to lift this business cycle’s output growth back up to the long-term trend. The answer is that it would have taken a 5.5-percent growth rate up to this point in the current recovery to lift this cycle’s output growth rate up to the 3.7- percent long-term rate registered from 1947 to 2007. That 5.5-percent rate is 2.9 percentage points higher than the actual 2.6-percent growth rate of the recovery. We can also calculate the rate necessary to lift this cycle’s  growth rate to that of the more recent trends. For example, to attain the 2.9-percent growth rate of the last business cycle—from the first quarter of 2001 to the fourth quarter of 2007—the current recovery would have   needed a 4.5-percent output growth rate—1.9 percentage points higher than the growth rate posted thus far in  this business cycle.The gap between the current output series and historical trend rates can be seen in chart 2. The output series of the current business cycle is shown by the solid dark-blue line, and the dashed and dotted dark-blue lines show the trends in output for the entire historical period and the last business cycle. Comparing the current output series with the long-term output growth trend from 1947 to 2007 (the dashed dark-blue line), we can see that the current series lies well below this trend line and that the gap between the series has widened since the end of the recession. Put in dollar terms, the gap between the actual output and this hypothetical output if it had continued to follow the 1947-to-2007 output trend during this cycle is now more than $2.7 trillion, or over $22,900 in lost annual output per job in the nonfarm business sector. 7  Comparing the current series with the trend rate from the previous business cycle (the dotted dark-blue line) also reveals that the output gap has widened since the end of the recession, although by less than the full historical trend indicates.
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