By Dave Altig
The latest on productivity, from the Associated Press via USA Today:
U.S. worker productivity accelerated to a still-modest 0.9% annual pace between April and June after dropping the previous quarter.
The second-quarter gain ... reversed a decline in the January-March quarter, when the Labor Department's revised numbers show productivity shrank at a 1.7% annual pace.
Labor costs rose at a 1.4% annual pace from April through June, reversing a revised 4.2% drop the previous quarter.
Productivity measures output per hour of work. Weak productivity suggests that companies may have to hire because they can't squeeze more work from their existing employees....
Productivity growth has been weaker recently, rising 1.5% in 2012 and 0.5% in 2011.
Annual productivity growth averaged 3.2% in 2009 and 3.3% in 2010. In records dating back to 1947, it's been about 2%.
Though not quite in the category of spectacular -- and coming off revisions that if anything made things look weaker than previously thought -- last quarter's uptick is a welcome development. Earlier this week, in a speech to the Atlanta Kiwanis club, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart laid out several scenarios with materially different implications for how the GDP and employment picture might play out over the next several years:
As a matter of arithmetic, healthy employment growth coupled with tepid GDP growth implies weak labor productivity growth. And in fact, productivity growth in recent quarters has been significantly below historical norms.
[I] believe that the recent low growth of productivity is probably just a temporary downdraft after the rather strong productivity growth when the economy emerged from recession.
If productivity growth rebounds to more typical levels, the coincidence of job gains at a pace of around 190,000 per month in recent months and GDP growth below 2 percent cannot persist. Again, it's a matter of arithmetic. Either GDP growth will rise to levels consistent with recent employment growth, or employment growth will fall to levels more consistent with the weak GDP data we've been witnessing.
I've got a working assumption on this question, and it is captured in the Atlanta Fed's baseline forecast for the second half of this year and 2014. This outlook calls for a pickup in real GDP growth over the balance of 2013, with a further step-up in economic activity as we move into 2014.
You can get a sense of this outlook by considering the output of one particular model that we use here at the Atlanta Fed. The model, which is purely statistical, gives us a view into how productivity, GDP, employment, and the unemployment rate might move together (along with other labor market variables like labor force participation and average hours worked). Here is the bottom line of an exercise that assumes GDP growth through 2015 comes in at about the central tendency of the projections from the Federal Reserve's June 2013 Summary of Economic Projections.
For this exercise, we have adjusted the 2013 growth forecast down slightly due to the weaker-than-expected growth in the first half of the year. Additionally, we have plugged in assumptions for productivity growth -- 1.5 percent per quarter (SAAR), the average gain over the past eight years -- and nonfarm business output growth. We then let the model forecast the remaining variables, all of which are for the labor market:
The model forecasts employment gains in the neighborhood of what the economy has been generating over the past several years, and a steadily declining unemployment rate.
Now consider two "stall" scenarios in which GDP growth fails to get beyond 2.3%. The first of these scenarios is the one noted in the Lockhart Kiwanis speech, with productivity recovering but job growth falling off the pace:
From a policy perspective, this one may not cause too much handwringing about the appropriate course of action. The weak GDP growth is accompanied by a failure to make the type of progress on the unemployment rate that the FOMC has clearly articulated as the necessary condition for adjustments in policy rates:
[T]he Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4% and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2%, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee's 2% longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.
Absent unforeseen issues with inflation, staying the course would seem to be in order.
But there is a second stall scenario in which productivity and GDP growth remain tepid, even as labor market indicators improve:
The difference in this experiment is that the expectations of those that President Lockhart referred to in his speech as the "innovation pessimists" are correct. Recent weakness in productivity growth reflects a fall in trend productivity growth. In this case, essentially identical labor market outcomes would nonetheless correspond to an economy that can't seem to hit "escape" velocity.
If it is clear that this configuration of outcomes is associated with a structural break in productivity growth, an argument against monetary policy stimulus would have some weight. After all, in most cases we don't expect the tools of monetary policy to fix structural efficiency problems. But, alas, such clarity rarely arrives in real time. The experiments above give some sense of how difficult it can be to discover the right branch to follow on the policy decision tree.