The GDP report, on the headline, appeared to be rather weak. Digging into the details of the report, however, painted a different picture, one of underlying strength, including robust consumer spending, as I recently wrote. One negative factor is the downturn in business investment in property, plant and equipment.
Difficulty finding qualified workers
The jobs data, however, was more robust for the past two months - and with rising wages as well. The linkage between consumer spending and more people employed (and more of them earning higher wages) is rather intuitive, and in fact, downright obvious. But what are the second-round effects of lower unemployment? The answer is that businesses will need to find a way to make their existing workforce more productive, as a dwindling pool of qualified workers make expansion more difficult.
Indeed, the National Federation of Independent Businesses reported recently in its Business Outlook Survey, "[Business] owners are still reporting that they cannot find qualified workers and cite it as their third "Single Most Important Business Problem." Indeed, the report noted, "Twenty-nine percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period, up 2 points, the highest reading in this expansion."
Lower unemployment may boost capital spending
And that may mean more investment in equipment and technologies that boost output to make up for a dearth of qualified labor. After all, productivity - the output per hour of work - isn't due so much to a single worker producing ever more toasters on an assembly line. Rather, it's new machinery and processes that allow workers to produce more with the same inputs of labor. It is only natural, at some point, for businesses to substitute capital for labor when labor becomes more expensive or scarce.
For that reason, consider the inverse relationship between changes in business capex investment and changes in the unemployment rate, as seen in the nearby graph.
Part of this is, of course, due to the fact that, during a recession, at least, businesses are more likely to cut investment at the same time they lay off workers. But observe the relationship in the graph outside of recessions. The same inverse relationship holds true then, even though the economy arguably is faring relatively well. Simply examine the periods of economic expansion in recent decades in the nearby graph, which offers a good, observational view.
We've become accustomed to thinking of the unemployment rate as a lagging indicator, even though the unemployment rate spikes higher during recessions: neither very much before nor long after. The sustained fall in the unemployment rate to 4.9% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a level arguably within the range of full employment (at least as stated within the ranges offered by the Federal Reserve and various Fed officials individually) argues for a bump in business capital investment. In other words, unemployment isn't just an effect of economic activity; it is also a causative factor as well.
Does a strong dollar hurt - or help?
Now, you might ask, what could be different this time around? Could the strong dollar be a reason why businesses might not invest, if a strong dollar may make competition from overseas producers more difficult? Consider the nearby graph, which illustrates an imperfect correlation between the relationship between the dollar and capex investment. Sometimes, there is a positive relationship, sometimes a negative one.
What then do businesses view of the level and direction of the dollar when choosing whether to invest more in capex? There are two considerations. One is the fact that many businesses import machinery and equipment, so a strong dollar makes those imports cheaper. Another is that businesses must compete with lower-priced imports and locally-made goods abroad in foreign markets, making productivity gains all the more essential to limit costs. So, to the extent that businesses compete against overseas companies, they may up their capex investment to compete on price. And a stronger dollar may make importing those equipment and technologies less expensive at the same time.
The longer term effects
These investments take time to plan, order, and finally implement new technologies. Recognizing the need to invest in new projects doesn't mean that factories don't sprout up overnight or that equipment is deployed immediately. Thus, we might not see an increase in investment right away.
But as long as companies have a need to improve efficiencies to compete on price with goods made abroad, and as long as companies face an increased difficulty in hiring, we may see an eventual increase in business investment. And that can be accretive to economic growth in months ahead. After all, the primary means of raising living standards is growing productivity, as that is the essential ingredient to allow companies to boost wages and maintain their profit margins at the same time.
Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal, and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions. The information contained in this piece is intended for information only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered investment advice. Please contact your financial adviser with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.
The information and opinions expressed herein are obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital. Opinions expressed are current as of the date of this publication and are subject to change. Certain statements contained within are forward-looking statements including, but not limited to, predictions or indications of future events, trends, plans or objectives. Undue reliance should not be placed on such statements because, by their nature, they are subject to known and unknown risks and uncertainties.
© 2016 United Capital Financial Advisers, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.