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Productivity in US Decreases for a Second Straight Quarter

May 4, 2016
The measure of employee output per hour fell at a 1% annualized rate from January through March after a 1.7% decline in the fourth quarter. 

U.S. worker productivity decreased for a second straight quarter and employer costs for labor climbed by the most in more than a year.

The measure of employee output per hour fell at a 1% annualized rate from January through March after a 1.7% decline in the fourth quarter. The median estimate of in a Bloomberg survey was for a 1.3% retreat. Labor costs jumped 4.1%, more than forecast.

Employers have steadily beefed up headcounts to meet demand even as growth softened the past two quarters. At the same time, they’ve been hesitant to ramp up investments in efficiency-boosting equipment, meaning productivity will likely continue to languish.

“You’ve got strong labor-market data and weak GDP data, and that pretty much by definition is going to translate into soft productivity numbers,” Stephen Stanley, chief economist Amherst Pierpont Securities LLC in New York, said before the report. “You would expect that this would be exactly the time in the expansion when businesses would start to kick into gear with labor-saving investment, and it’s not happening.”

Estimates for productivity in the Bloomberg survey ranged from no change to a 2.4% decline. The reading for the prior three months was originally reported as a 2.2% decline.

The productivity data showed expenses per worker picked up in the first quarter from a 2.7% rate in the final three months of 2015. These so-called unit labor costs, which are adjusted for efficiency gains, were forecast to climb 3.3%, according to the Bloomberg survey median.

Hourly Earnings

Adjusted for inflation, hourly earnings increased at a 3.4% rate in the first quarter, the most in a year, after rising at a 0.1% pace the previous period.

Output advanced at a 0.4% rate, the weakest in two years, following a 1.5% pace. Total hours worked eased to a 1.5% rate from 3.3% in the fourth quarter, the figures also showed.

Growth slowed to a crawl in the first quarter. The deceleration came as consumers and companies alike reined in their spending amid weak global financial conditions and a plunge in oil prices.

When that environment is combined with the uncertainty accompanying the election season, the much-needed pickup in business investment is likely to remain elusive, Stanley said. That, in turn, doesn’t bode well for workers’ wages as companies strive to protect profits.

“People’s living standards are derived really more than anything else by the rate of productivity,” Stanley said. “Over time, if productivity growth is lower, then wage growth should be lower as well.”

Some economists have speculated that a measurement issue may be partly to blame, with incremental progress in productivity difficult to capture. If that’s not the case, however, the productivity slide will limit just how fast the economy can grow without stoking inflation.

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