Making Stuff

May 5, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This week I’ll review several decades of trends in productivity. How much output do we get out of labor, land, and capital inputs? Capital can include new equipment, computers, buildings, etc. In the graph below, the blue line is real GDP (output) per person. The red line is disposable (after-tax) income per person. That’s the labor share of that output after taxes.

As you can see, labor is the majority input. In the following graph is the share of real GDP going to disposable income.  In the past two decades, labor has been getting a larger share.

That might look good but it’s not. Since 2000, the economy has shifted toward service industries where labor does not produce as much GDP per hour. The chart below shows the efficiency of labor, or how much GDP is being produced by labor.

If labor were being underpaid, the amount of GDP produced per dollar of disposable income would be higher, not lower. On average, service jobs do not have as much leverage as manufacturing jobs.

A century ago, agricultural jobs were inefficient in comparison to manufacturing jobs. The share of labor to total output was high. In the past seventy years, the agricultural industry has transformed. Today’s farms resemble large outdoor manufacturing plants without walls and productivity continues to grow. In the past five years, steep price declines in the prices of many agricultural products have put extraordinary pressures on today’s smaller farmers. The increased productivity of larger farms has allowed them to maintain real net farm income at the same level as twenty years ago (Note #1). Here’s a graph from the USDA.

Although agriculture related industries contribute more than 5% of the nation’s GDP, farm output is only 1% of the nation’s total output. The productivity gains in agriculture have not been shared by the rest of the economy. Labor productivity has plunged from 2.8% annual growth in the years 2000-2007 to 1.3% in the past eleven years (Note #2).  Here’s an earlier report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with a chart that illustrates the trends (Note #3). The report notes “Sluggish productivity growth has implications for worker compensation. As stated earlier, real hourly compensation growth depends upon gains in labor productivity.”

Productivity growth in this past decade is comparable to the two years of deep recession, high unemployment and sky-high interest rates in the early 1980s. The report notes “although both hours and output grew at below-average rates during this cycle [2008 through 2016], the fact that output grew notably slower than its historical average is what yields the historically low labor productivity growth.” Today we have low unemployment and very low interest rates – the exact opposite of that earlier period. Why do the two periods have similar productivity gains? It’s a head scratcher.

Simple answers? No, but hats off to Donald Trump who has called attention to the need for a greater shift to manufacturing in the U.S. economy. He and then Wisconsin governor Scott Walker negotiated with FoxConn Chairman Terry Gou to get a huge factory built in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin to manufacture LCD displays, but progress has slowed. An article this week in the Wall St. Journal exposed the tensions that erupt among residents of an area which has made a major commitment to economic growth (Note #4).

If we don’t shift toward more manufacturing, American economic growth will slow to match that of the Eurozone. Along with that will come negative interest rates from the central bank and little or no interest on CDs and savings accounts. We already had a taste of that for several years after the recession. No thanks. Low interest rates are a hidden tax on savers. They lower the amount of interest the government pays at the expense of individuals who are saving for education or retirement. Interest income not received is a reduction in disposable income and has the same effect as a tax. Low interest rates encourage an unhealthy growth in corporate debt and drive up both stock and housing prices.

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Note:

  1. USDA summary of agricultural industry
  2. BLS report on multi-factor productivity
  3. BLS report on declining labor productivity
  4. FoxConn LCD factory (March article – no paywall). Also, a recent article from WSJ (paywall) – Foxconn Tore Up a Small Town to Build a Big Factory—Then Retreated

Productivity And Labor Unions

February 5, 2017

About 10% of all workers, public and private, belong to a union. Today the percentage of private sector employees who are unionized is the same as in 1932, eighty years ago. (Wikipedia) The rise and fall of unon membership looks like the familiar bell curve, with the peak in the 1970s. The causes of the decline are debated but some attribute the erosion of union power as an important factor in wage stagnation.

The major factor is not declining union membership but declining productivity, and that persistent decline has economists and policymakers baffled.  Higher productivity should equal higher wage growth and, in the 30 year post-war period 1948-1977, multi-factor productivity (MFP) annual growth averaged 1.7%. MFP includes both labor and capital inputs. In the 40 year period from 1976-2015, MFP growth averaged about half that rate – .9%.

prodmfp1948-2015

In the debate over the causes of the decline, some contend that all the easy gains were made by 1980.  Productivity is now returning to a centuries long growth trend that is less than 1%. In an October 2016 Bloomberg article, Justin Fox picked apart BLS data to show that growth has been flat in some key manufacturing areas for the past three decades. The ten-fold surge in productivity growth in the tech sector is largely responsible for any growth during the past 30 years. OECD data indicates that other developed countries are experiencing a similar lack of growth (OECD Table) When no one can conclusively demonstrate what the causes are for the decline, policymakers face tough challenges and even tougher debate over the solutions.

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LoanGate

LoanGate may the next scandal. A few months ago, the Dept of Education (DoE) revealed that they had seriously undercounted student loan delinqencies because of a programming error. When the Wall St. Journal analyzed the revised data, they found that the majority of students at 25% of all colleges and trade schools in the U.S. had defaulted on their student loan or failed to make any repayment.  (WSJ article)

The Obama administration forced the closure of many private institutions whose students had low repayment rates. In 2015, Corinthian Colleges shuttered the last of its schools and filed for bankruptcy. The revised data show that many more institutions, both public and private, should be shut down.

This latest programming error at the DoE follows other embarrassing episodes during the two Obama terms. In October 2013, the rollout of Obamacare was riddled with programming errors that blocked many applicants from enrolling in a plan with healthcare.gov.

In 2010, the IRS delayed many applications for 501(c)3 tax status from mostly conservative political groups. Lois Lerner, the head of the agency, first claimed that these had been innocent clerical mistakes by an overworked staff, but a series of hearings uncovered the fact that employees at the IRS had acted on their own political feelings and deliberately targeted these groups. (Mother Jones)

In yet another incident, the Office of Personnel and Managment (OPM), the HR dept for thousands of Federal employees, revealed in 2016 a data breach involving 22,000,000 personnel records, including Social Security numbers.  Unchecked programming errors and data breaches erode the public’s faith in public institutions.  That these mistakes happened under a Democratic administration favoring ever bigger public institutions to solve ever bigger social problems is especially embarrassing.

When Obama first took office in 2009, the inflation adjusted total of student debt had quadrupled in the 15 year period (DoE paper – page 1) since 1993. By the time he left office eight years later, student debt had grown ten-fold to $1.3 trillion. The delinquency rate on that debt is 11% but the repayment rate is considered a better predictor of future delinquencies. The revised data reduced the combined repayment rate to a little more than 50% (Inside Higher Ed), far lower than the 75% plus repayment rates of a few decades ago.

The defaults are coming and there will be an inevitable call for a taxpayer bailout.  A popular element of Bernie Sanders’ Presidential platform was that a college education should be free. In the real world, nothing is free, so somebody pays.  Who should pay and how much will further aggravate tensions in an already divided electorate.

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Five Year Rule

A few weeks ago I wrote about the 5-year rule, a backstop to any allocation rule. Any money needed in the next five years should be in stable assets like short to intermediate term bonds, CDs and cash. Why 5 years of income? Why not 2 years or 10 years? Answer: History.

Let’s look back at 80 years in 5 year slices, or what is called 5-year rolling periods. As an example, the years 2000 – 2004 would be a 5-year rolling period. 2001 – 2005 would be the next period, and so on.

Saving me the time and effort of running the data on stock market returns is a blogger at All Financial Matters who put together a table of this very data for the years 1926-2012. The table shows that the SP500 has held or increased its inflation adjusted value (very important that we look at the real value) almost 75% of the time. So the 5-year rule guards against a loss of value the other 25% of the time.

The 5-year rule can apply whenever there are anticipated income needs from our savings: retirement, college expenses, sickness or disability, and even a greater chance of losing our jobs. In a retirement span of 25 years, 6 of those years will fall into that 25% category. The 5-year rule minimum usually kicks in toward the end of retirement when a person’s reserves are lower and prudence is especially important.

 

Global Portfolio

May 15, 2016

Picture the poor investor who leaves a meeting with their financial advisor followed by a Pig-Pen tangle of scribbled terms. Allocation, diversification, small cap, large cap, foreign and emerging markets, Treasuries, corporate bonds, real estate, and commodities. What happened to simplicity, they wonder?  Paper route or babysitting money went into a savings account which earned interest and the account balance grew while they slept.

For those in retirement, it’s even worse. The savings, or accumulation, phase may be largely over but now the withdrawal phase begins and, of course, there needs to be a withdrawal strategy.  Now there’s a gazillion more terms about withdrawal rates,  maximum drawdowns and recovery rates, life expectancy, inflation and other mumbo jumbo that is more complicated than Donald Trump’s changing interpretations of his proposed tax plans.

Seeking simplicity, an investor might be tempted to put their money in a low cost life strategy fund or a target date fund, both of which put investing on automatic pilot.  These are “fund of funds,” a single fund that invests in different funds in various allocations depending on one’s risk tolerance. There are income funds and growth funds and moderate growth funds within these categories.  For a target date fund, what date should an investor use?  It is starting to get complicated again.

Well, strap yourself into the mind drone because we are about to go global.  Hewitt EnnisKnupp is an institutional consulting group within Aon, the giant financial services company.  In 2014, they estimated the total global investable capital at a little over $100 trillion as of the middle of 2013. Let’s forget the trillion and call it $100.

Could an innocent investor take their cues from the rest of the world and invest their capital in the same percentages?  Let’s look again at the categories presented by the Hewitt group.  The four main categories, ranked in percentages, that jump off the page are:

Developed market bonds (23%),
U.S. Equities (18%),
U.S. Corporate Bonds (15%),
and Developed Market equities (14%).

The world keeps a cushion of investable cash at about 5% so let’s throw that into the mix for a total of 75%.   Notice how many categories of investment there are that make up the other 25% of investable capital!

In the interest of simplification let’s consider only those four primary categories and the cash. Adjusting those percentages so that they total 100% (and a bit of rounding) gives us:

Developed Market bonds 30%,
U.S. Corporate Bonds 20%,
U.S. Equities 25%
Developed Market equities 19%,
Cash 6%.
Notice that this is a stock/bond mix of 44/56, a bit on the conservative side of a neutral 50/50 mix.  Equities make up 44%, bonds and cash make up 56%.

I’ll call this the “World” portfolio and give some Vanguard ETF and Mutual Fund examples.  Symbols that end in ‘X’, except BNDX, are mutual funds. Fidelity and other mutual fund groups will have similar products.

International bonds 30% –  BNDX, and VTABX, VTIBX
U.S. Corporate Bonds 20% – BND and VBTLX, VBMFX
U.S. Equities 25% – VTI and VTSAX, VTSMX
Developed Market equities 19% – VEA and VTMGX, VDVIX

According to Portfolio Visualizer’s free backtesting tool this mix would have produced a total return of 5.41% over the past ten years, and had a maximum drawdown (loss of portfolio value) of about 22% during this period.  For a comparison, an aggressive mix of 94% U.S. equities and 6% cash would have generated 7.06% during the same period, but the drawdown was almost 50% during the financial upheaval of 2007 – 2009.

There have been two financial crises in the past century:  the Great Depression of the 1930s and this latest Great Recession.  If the balanced portfolio above could generate almost 5-1/2% during such a severe crisis, an investor could feel sure that her inital portfolio balance would probably remain intact during a thirty year period of retirement.  During a horrid five year period, from 2006-2010, with an annual withdrawal rate of 5%, the original portfolio balance was preserved, a hallmark of a steady ship in what some might call the perfect storm.

Finally, let’s look at a terrible ten year period, from January 2000 to December 2009, from the peak of the dot com bubble in 2000 to the beaten down prices of late 2009, shortly after the official end of the recession.  This period included two prolonged slumps in stock prices, in which they lost about 50% of their value.  A World portfolio with an initial balance of $100K enabled a 5% withdrawal each year, or $48K over a ten year period, and had a remaining balance of $90K. Using this strategy, one could have withdrawn a moderate to aggressive 5% of the portfolio each year, and survived the worst decade in recent market history with 90% of one’s portfolio balance still intact.

Advisors often recommend a 4% annual withdrawal rate as a conservative or safe rate that preserves one’s savings during the worst of times and this strategy would have done just that during this worst ten year period.  Retirees who need more income than 4% may find the World portfolio a conservative compromise.

{ For those who are interested in a more granular breakdown of sectors within asset classes, check out this 2008 estimate of global investable capital.}

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Productivity

In a recent article, Jim Zarroli with NPR compared productivity growth with the weak growth of only the wages component of employee compensation.  He did leave out an increasingly big chunk of total employee compensation: Federal and State mandated taxes, insurances and benefits.  Since these are mandated costs, the income is not disposable. A term I have never liked for this package of additional costs and benefits is “employer burden.”  The burden is really on the employee as we will see.

In the graph below are two indexes: total compensation per hour and output per hour.  At the end of the last recession in the middle of 2009, the two indexes were the same.  Seven years later, output is slightly higher than total compensation but the discrepancy is rather small compared to the dramatic graph difference shown in the NPR article. As output continues to level and compensation rises more rapidly, we can expect that compensation will again overtake output.

Over the past several decades, employees have voted in the politicians who promised more tax-free insurances and benefits.  While the tax-free aspect of these benefits is an advantage, some employees may think they are freebies.  Payroll stubs produced by more recent software programs enable employers to show the costs of these benefits to employees, who are often surprised at the amount of dollars that are spent on their behalf.  While these benefits are welcome, they don’t pay school tuition, the rising costs of housing or repairs to the family car.

Many voters thought they could have it all because some politicians promised it all: more tax-free insurances and benefits, and higher disposable income.  Total employee compensation, though, must be constrained by productivity growth. In the coming decade, legislators will put forth alternative baskets of total compensation.  More benefits and insurances means less disposable income but a politician can not just say that outright and get re-elected. More disposable income means less insurances and benefits, which will anger other voters.  In short, the political discourse in this country promises to only get more contentious.

Heatlh Care

November 29, 2015

Obamacare

United Healthcare (UNH), the largest health insurance carrier in the U.S., announced that they may drop out of the state health care exchanges at the end of 2016.  The CEO indicated that it would review costs again in mid-2016 but was concerned that continuing losses on the state exchange plans would simply make it uneconomical for UNH to continue to offer these plans.

UNH says it has evidence of many individuals gaming the system by coming into and out of the health insurance system when they need medical services. {Bloomberg and Market Watch} It is not clear how patients would do this since the health care exchanges have enrollment rules similar to Medicare.  These restrictions are designed to make it difficult for individuals to game the system.  Are those rules being implemented consistently on the state level?  If the policy rules are in place, have the screening algorithms been reviewed?  Poor implementation and oversight have plagued some exchanges.

At the heart of Obamacare is the projection that costs for the newly insured stabilize after approximately two years, a metric derived from long experience with Medicare patients.  Individuals who have not had regular medical care often have chronic unattended conditions which need to be stabilized.  Medicare costs typically rise during this initial stage before leveling off.

Obamacare will certainly be an issue in the upcoming Presidential election.  The debate will intensify if other insurers express doubts about the economic feasibility of the system,

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Productivity and Policy

Economists and policy makers continue to debate the causes, and solutions, for the slowdown in labor productivity that has occurred over the past several decades.  Larry Summers served as Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, Director of the National Economic Council under President Obama, and Chief Economist at the World Bank.  In other words, the guy’s got some chops.

In a recent speech Summers noted several trends:

1)  Dis-employment of unskilled workers.  The participation rate of those aged 25 – 54 has declined from 95% in 1965 to 85% now. (p. 3)  While this is often attributed to technical improvements, Mr. Summers makes the case that labor productivity should go up, not down, due to technical change.  That is not the case.  Summers says he doesn’t have the answer either but the contradiction between theory and data indicates that economists still don’t understand the underlying processes. (p. 4)

2) Mismeasurement.  Productivity measures are based on the calculation of real GDP which is dependent on the measure of inflation.  Summers asks whether differences in quality, or what are called hedonic measures, are captured in CPI data.  He asks “Which would you rather have for you and your family, 1980 healthcare at 1980 prices or 2015 healthcare at 2015 prices?  How many people would prefer 2015 healthcare at 2015 prices?”  If people prefer the 2015 variety at 2015 prices then inflation has been negative in healthcare.  As a percent of GDP, healthcare spending has increased.  Mismeasuring inflation in healthcare may negate all or most of this increase. (p. 5)

3) As we have transitioned to an economy dominated by services, mismeasurement of inflation has probably increased.  A leading technocat in Democratic administrations, Summers casts doubts on a staple of liberal rhetoric – that median family income has not changed since 1973.  This idea is a central tenet of Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.  What if the measurement of median family income is flawed?  This doubt is more often raised by conservative economists and policy makers.  Summers’ remarks crossed the ideological and political divide and surely raised a few eyebrows. (p. 6)

4) Developing the theme of measurement as it pertains to different types of economies, Summers refers to several statistical terms like “unit root” stationarity that may challenge casual readers.

When a time series (data observations over time like GDP) has a unit root it exhibits more deterministic behavior; it is more likely to adopt an altered path or trendline when shocked off its previous path.

Series without a unit root are more likely to exhibit stochastic behavior when subjected to some shock; that is, they will tend to return to their former path or trendline, not form a new trendline.

At mid-century, when our economy was much more reliant on manufacturing, it behaved in a stochastic way when subjected to economic shocks.  It rebounded to a previous trendline.  Our economy is now overwhelmingly service oriented, about 88%.  Summers makes the case (p. 9) that unbalanced economies like ours behave differently than a more balanced economy.  The growth path of GDP changes permanently in response to an economic shock like the financial crisis of 2008.  If that is the case, policy changes will be ineffective in returning GDP and employment back to the former trendline. (For more info on testing the deterministic and stochastic components of time series processes, see this).

Summers adds to the number of voices calling for a more accurate – but also objective – measurement of inflation. Poor measurement leads to imprecise data leads to inaccurate conclusions leads to ineffective policy leads to more problems leads to…

Policy debates often involve complicated issues of identification, measurement, and methods of analysis that are not readily explainable in a campaign speech.  On our way home from work, a complicated system of algorithms based on traffic data determines whether the traffic lights continue to trip green as we maintain a constant speed.  Much of this is hidden from us and incomprehensible to most of us.  All of that complexity is boiled down to a simple heuristic: we go when it’s green, stop when it’s red.

Voters like simple.  The job of a politician is to convince voters and donors that if they are elected, they will implement the right policies, the correct algorithms that will move traffic, i.e. the economic fortunes of the families of America, faster.

Post War Productivity

July 26, 2015

Each year, the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) submits the Economic Report of the President  to the Congress.  They compile a number of data series to show some long term trends in household income, wages, productivity and labor participation.  Readers should understand that the report, coming from a committee acting under a Democratic President, filters the data to express a political point of view that is skewed to the left.  When the President is from the Republican Party, the filters express a conservative viewpoint.  Has there ever been a neutral economic viewpoint?

In this year’s report the Council identifies three distinct periods since the end of WW2: 1948-1973, 1973-1995, and 1995-2013.  In hindsight, this last period may not be a single bloc, as the report acknowledges (p. 32).

The most common measure of productivity growth is Labor Productivity, which is the increase in output divided by the number of hours to get that increase.  Total Factor Productivity, sometimes called Multi-Factor Productivity (BLS page), measures all inputs to production – labor, material, and capital.  As we can see in the chart below (page source), total factor productivity has declined substantially since the two decade period following WW2.

In the first period 1948-1973, average household income grew at a rate that was 50% greater than total productivity growth, an unsustainable situation.  This post war period, when the factories of Europe had been destroyed and America was the workshop of the world, may have been a singular time never to be repeated.  What can’t go on forever, won’t.  In the period 1973-1995, real median household income that included employer benefits grew by .4% per year, the same growth rate as total productivity.

The decline in the growth rate of productivity hinders income growth which prompts voters to pressure politicians to “fix” the slower wage growth.  If households enjoyed almost 3% income growth in the 1950s and 1960s, they want the same in subsequent decades.  If the rest of the world has become more competitive, voters don’t care.  “Fix it,” they – er, we – tell politicians, who craft social benefit programs and tax programs which shift income gains so that households can once again enjoy an unsustainable situation: income growth that is greater than total productivity growth.

“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” was a song written by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger in the 1950s. It was  a song about the folly of war but the sentiment applies just as well to politicians who think that they can overcome some of the fundamental forces of economics.  Seeger asked: “When will they ever learn?”

Income, Housing and Durable Goods

In this week’s downturn, prices of the SP500 almost touched the 26 week, or half year, average of $203.90.  Since August 2012, when the 50 day average crossed above the 200 day average, these price dips have been good buying opportunities as the market has resumed its upwards climb after each downturn.

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Manufacturing and Durable Goods

Preliminary readings of March’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) showed an uptick back into strong growth.  Survey respondents were concerned about weak export sales as the dollar’s strength makes American products more expensive overseas.  The full report will be released this coming Wednesday.

This past Wednesday’s report that Durable Goods had dropped 1.4% in February caused an already negative market to fall another 1.5% for the day and this marked the close of the week’s activity as well.  New orders for non-transportation durable goods have steadily declined since the fall.  Although the year-over-year comparisons are consistent with GDP growth, about 2.3%, the downward trend is concerning.

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Housing

Existing home sales in February rose almost 5% in a year over year comparison, the best in a year and a half but still below the 5 million annual mark. The positive y-o-y gains during the past six months has prompted some optimism that sales may climb back above the 5 million mark in the spring and summer season.

New home sales in February surged back above a half million.  In a more healthy market, sales of new homes are 6% – 7% of existing homes.  In 2006, that ratio started climbing above the normal range, getting increasingly sicker until it reached almost 18% in May 2010.  February’s ratio was 9%. If the ratio were in the normal range, existing home sales would be over 8 million, far above the current 4.9 million units actually sold.

In a 2014 report the National Assn of Realtors noted that boomers tend to buy new or newer homes to avoid maintenance headaches while younger buyers buy older homes because they are less expensive (page 3).  38% of all home buyers are first timers but the percentage is double for those younger than 33 (Exhibit 1-9 in the report).  As the supply of existing homes is inadequate to meet the demand, prices climb and suppress the demand, forcing first timers to either buy a smaller new home or continue renting.

Sales of new homes and the fortunes of home builders are based on the churn of existing homes.  Since October, the stocks of home builders (XHB) have climbed 20% in anticipation of growing sales, but weak existing home sales may prove to be a choke point for growth.

The larger publicly traded homebuilders also build multi-family units.  Real investment in this sector has tripled from the lows of early 2010 but are still below pre-crisis levels.

The housing market in this country is still wounded.  63% of the population are white Europeans (Census Bureau) but are 86% of home buyers (Exhibit 1-6).  While few will admit to racial prejudice in the current housing market, the numbers are the footprints of this nation’s long history of racial discrimination and socio-economic disparity.  Mortgage companies that made – let’s call them imprudent – credit decisions that helped precipitate the housing crisis are especially cautious, making it more difficult for younger buyers to purchase their first home, despite the historically low mortgage rates.  This market will not heal until mortgage companies relax their lending criteria just a bit and that won’t happen while rates are so low.

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Income

The Bee Gees might have sung “Words are all I have to take your heart away” because they were singing about love, not economics and finance.  Graphs often tell the story much better than words.  A milestone was passed a few years back.  For the first time since World War 2, the growth in income crossed below the growth in output.

This past week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a revision to their initial estimate of multi-factorial productivity in 2013.  There is a lot of data to gather for this series.  An often quoted productivity growth rate calculates the GDP of the nation divided by an estimate of the number of hours worked, a statistic that is accessible through payroll reports submitted monthly and quarterly.  The contribution of capital to GDP is much more difficult to assess and is largely disregarded by those like Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, who have a political axe to grind.  Truth is on a path too meandering for politics.

Total output in the years 2007 – 2013 was just plain bad, growing at an annual rate of only 1%, a third of the 2.9% growth rate from the longer period 1987 – 2013.  In the BLS assessment, the growth rates of both labor and capital inputs were poor by historical norms but capital input accounted for all of the meager gains in non-farm business productivity.  People’s work is simply not contributing as much to growth as before.  That reality means that income growth will be meager, which will prompt louder political rhetoric to make some kind of change, any kind of change, because voters like to believe that politicians have magic wands.

An Unwelcome Guest

Nov. 30, 2014

The short week of Thanksgiving should have been rather uneventful.  The week before, officials in Ferguson, Missouri had announced an imminent decision in the grand jury hearing of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an African American, by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer who was European American.

Slavery, the denial of civil rights to African Americans, and persistent housing and job discrimination against African Americans are an integral part of American history.  Bankruptcy is a formal discharge of debt.  There is no formal procedure for discharging past wrongs.  Some Southerners are still distrustful of the Federal bureaucracy in Washington that committed so many wrongs in the period after the Civil War.  The wounds inflicted by white skinned Americans on dark skinned Americans is fresher than those suffered by Southerners during the Reconstruction period almost 150 years ago.  Fresh wounds bleed easily when scratched.

The grand jury took several days longer than “imminent” to reach its decision, announced Monday night.  Several weeks of protests during the course of the hearing erupted into violent rioting at the grand jury’s decision that Officer Wilson should not be indicted for any charges, ranging from first degree murder to manslaughter.  The decision, right or wrong on the facts, picked at the scab of the soul of some African Americans, provoking senseless violence.  Americans of every skin color riot when their team wins the World Series (San Francisco 2014) or Super Bowl (Denver 1998).  Dark skinned Americans riot when they perceive that some injustice has been committed against them.

The costliest riots, over $1 billion in damages, had occurred in Los Angeles in 1992 after the Rodney King beating.  Whether in response to victory or injustice, rioting provoked confusion and condemnation in any society.  It was both uncomfortable and strangely seductive to watch the emergence of a super two-year old, having a temper tantrum, from a group of civilized human beings.

Property damage from civil unrest was covered by many business insurance plans, George knew, but he wondered how many businesses damaged in the Ferguson riots were covered for interruption of business operations, replacing some or all of the owner’s lost income.  Sometimes these were sold as riders to a commercial policy.

People with jobs were less likely to get angry.  Unemployment among African Americans was at the same level as the early seventies, when the economy was in a severe recession, and the oil embargo and inflation had prompted Nixon to enact wage price controls.  Those had not been good times for many Americans. Five years after the official end of this last recession, the unemployment rate among African Americans was twice the rate of the general labor force.

The participation rate among African Americans was about 1% less than that for the entire labor force but the rate difference for men was about 4 to 5%.

George was a bit concerned that Monday night’s riots in Ferguson might have a secondary effect on Tuesday’s trading if the 2nd estimate of GDP growth for the 3rd quarter was below 3%.  Yes, he should have been more focused on making turkeys out of construction paper for the Thanksgiving dinner.  He and Mabel – well, mostly Mabel – had started the tradition when the kids, Robbie and Emily, were younger.  Somehow they had continued the tradition after the kids had gone.  George told Mabel that he would do it while they watched the season finale of Dancing With the Stars on Tuesday night.  Somehow he felt like a kid saying he would do his homework later.  Long marriages result from both partners doing stuff they don’t particularly like doing, George thought.

Tuesday morning’s report of GDP growth allayed George’s concerns.  October’s initial estimate of growth had been 3.5%.  This second estimate was higher, at 3.9%.  The Case Shiller 20 city home price index showed a slight month-to-month increase, but the yearly increase in price was just about 5%, more in line with historical averages.  
 Corporate Profits for the 3rd quarter gained 3.8% year-over-year, slowing down from the 4.6% year-over-year growth in the 2nd quarter.  Profit growth was ultimately driven by growth in productivity.  Capital investments in technology had reaped the greater share of overall growth in the past decade or more.  Labor’s share of growth had been particularly weak the past few years, far below the average of the past forty years. 
A closer look at labor productivity gains in the past decade showed just how meager they were.  
A work force unable to capture productivity growth could not command strong pay growth.  Economists at the BLS anticipated increasing overall output growth in this next decade but those projections were sullied by the lack of clarity regarding the causes for the slow growth in labor productivity of the past decade. Did the shift further away from manufacturing make gains harder to come by?  Was there a limit to growth that could be achieved by better management, process design and innovation? Some blamed the exponential growth of the regulatory state, forcing businesses to devote an increasing number of hours on compliance and reporting.  Others blamed the increase in social benefit programs for softening the competitive edge of American workers.  Got a reason?  Throw it in the hat, George thought. The market traded in a flat range for the day.
On Wednesday, George went to the bank to cash in the joint CD that he and Mabel had discussed the previous week.  He was surprised to learn that the bank did not require the both of them to cash in a joint CD.  Mabel was busy with Thanksgiving fixings so it was convenient that George could go alone to handle the matter.  He picked up a certified bank check from one bank and drove over to the bank where they kept their checking account to deposit the money.  He was also surprised to find that the bank did not credit the money to their account for a few days. “The other bank is just like 10 to 15 blocks away,” George told the teller.  “Well, we have to guard against fraud,” the teller responded.  “So it would have been better to have gotten cash?” George asked. “Well, yeh, but then I think you would have to fill out a form because it’s a large cash transaction,” the teller informed him.  “You know, to say you got the money by legal means, that you’re not a drug dealer,” he went on, “but I’d have to ask my supervisor about that.”
George was going to transfer the money that day to their brokerage but thought he should wait till Monday.  George was tempted to buy maybe a 1000 shares of USO, the commodity ETF that tracked West Texas Intermediate Oil.  OPEC was scheduled to meet Thanksgiving day to discuss the near term future of oil prices.  They had dropped by about a third in the past year as increasing barrels of U.S. shale oil were added to the supply for a weakening global demand.  U.S. oil production was now at 9 million barrels a day, the same level  as the mid-1980s, and rising toward the record production of 10 million barrels in the early 1970s.
Poorer countries in OPEC who funded their government with the sale of oil, wanted to set production cuts to halt any further declines in oil prices.  With their huge supply of oil and relatively inexpensive production costs, the Saudis were content to let the slide continue.  On Tuesday, oil prices had dropped a few percent.  But if the other members of OPEC prevailed and production cuts were announced, George reasoned, he could make a bundle of money in a short time by buying oil the day before.  That was the speculative angel, or devil, on his shoulder whispering in his ear.  His other angel simply asked, “Are we investing or gambling?”  George gave in to his cautious angel.  He could also lose a bunch of money really quickly if the Saudis prevailed.  
Thanksgiving dinner was a relatively muted affair, unlike those of past years.  Bob, George’s older brother, and his wife, Flo, had flown down to Cabo to work on an archaeological dig.  The digging part of that “vacation” didn’t sound appealing to George but this archaeological club, or group, would put them up for 10 days in exchange for their labor and they would still have time for sun and surf.  Bob had become fascinated with archaeology when he was about 60 years old and had pursued it with a passion since then.
Mabel, the oldest of five siblings, had taken on the Thanksgiving festivities.  Two of her sisters lived in Colorado but only Susan, the youngest, came to dinner this week.  Most unusual, George thought, that Charlie was the only child at the dinner this year.  The talk at the dinner table turned to Ferguson.  Robbie had read quite a lot of the testimony at the grand jury hearing and was full of facts.  Charlie got bored as the adults chattered on during the meal. He saw a squirrel coming down the trunk of the tree in the front yard and asked George if he could have some peanuts to feed them.  George had showed Charlie how to sit still on the back deck after putting peanuts out for the squirrels in the middle of the backyard.  He was quite surprised that a child of that age could be motionless and silent for that long as they waited for the squirrels to scurry out from the bushes to snatch up a peanut in their wiry paws.
As the talk and opinions swirled around the table, Mabel was quiet, chewing methodically while listening attentively to the others.  George had already had a few testy words with her earlier in the week so he knew how strong her opinions were.  Robbie’s wife Gail all but accused her husband of being a racist because he did not understand that the facts of the case had been carefully cultivated in favor of the police officer.  Robbie asked his mom for some affirmation.  Mabel finished a bite of sweet potato. 
“About fifteen years ago, I stayed a bit late after school, finishing up some paperwork,” she said to Robbie, then turned to the others around the table.  “It was late October,  maybe early November.  The sun had already set.  There were only a few cars left in the parking lot.  There was one of those parking lot lights, the high ones like street lights, near my car but it would go on for a few seconds, then go off for about a minute.  As I walked to my car in the semi-darkness, I noticed a figure walking to me from my right as though to intersect me as I got to my car.  A second glance up and I saw he was wearing one of those,” she paused, “hoodies, I think they’re called.  As he got closer, maybe twenty feet away, I realized that I couldn’t see his face, that it was a black man in a hoodie. My heart instantly started flippity flopping as I realized that I was going to be attacked.”  
Mabel had everyone’s attention, a difficult thing to do in an family that was not reluctant to share their opinions. “There was no one else in the parking lot that I could call out to for help,” she continued in a purposeful voice. “I hurried my step, reached into my bag, fumbling for the car keys as I approached the car.  I didn’t want to look panicked, fearing I don’t know what.  Maybe that my panic would provoke the attacker.  As I reached out my arm to unlock the car, the man’s voice broke the darkness.  All I heard was ‘Hey’ and I turned and I yelled back ‘Aaaaahhhhh,’ grunting it out like some Kung-Fu movie.  “Mabel?  Is that you? I didn’t mean to startle you,” the voice from the hoodie said.  He brushed back the hood of his parka and I could see that it was James, the biology teacher. 
He was so apologetic and I pretended that I had not noticed him until just that minute. ‘My battery’s dead and I was wondering if you have some cables, could give me a jump,’ he explained to me.  ‘I was going to call AAA and then I saw someone come out of the school entrance and I thought it might be you but I wasn’t sure,’ he went on.  I had cables in the trunk, but I was so upset that I lied and told him no, I didn’t have any.  He thanked me and went back across the parking lot to his car.”  Mabel took a quick sip of water from her glass.  George had never heard this story.  After 35 years of marriage, that rarely occurred.
“I started up the car, then sat there crying,” she continued, her lips tense.  “It’s as though my ideals, my view of myself, was a cloak that I had worn and then, that night, I looked in the mirror without my cloak on.  I wasn’t racist in spirit,” she paused, searching for the words to complete the thought, “or intention, but I realized that I was a racist in perception. Racism is embedded in our culture, in me, whether I like it or not.”  
She stopped and there was silence around the dinner table, a rare event at a Liscomb family gathering.  Robbie, sitting close by his mother, reached across the table to grasp his mother’s hand. From the far end of the table, George was struck by her – what would he call it? Her forthrightness. She had an ability he lacked, and perhaps that’s why the seeing of it in her gave him a sense of admiration.  The moment snapped like a crisp carrot as the front door swung open and Charlie burst through the doorway.  “The squirrel was eating a peanut this far from me!” he yelled excitedly and spread wide his arms.

On Friday, George learned that the Saudis had prevailed at the OPEC meeting.  By the end of the day, USO had dropped more than 8%.  We bear the fruits of what we do and don’t do, George reminded himself, then wondered if that was a line from Shakespeare or maybe Leonard Cohen?

While the stock market stayed relatively quiet during the week, ten year bond prices continued to gather strength.  Stocks and bonds tended to move opposite each other in a dance of risk and return. When they both gained in strength, something had to give.  The last time they met at this strong level was at the end of August, when bonds faltered first, falling  about 5% over two weeks while the SP500 remained fairly stable.  In mid-September they flipped.  Bonds rallied up 8-9% as stocks fell the same amount.  Then stocks rallied to all time highs in the past four or five weeks but bond prices had not fallen more than a few percent.  George resolved to watch this dance during the following week.  It was the first week of the month, filled with a number of reports including the employment report that could renew or drain confidence in the stock market. 

Productivity & GDP

March 23rd, 2014

Industrial Production

The week opened with a positive report on industrial production.  The .8% rise offset Janary’s decline and was the 4th month in which this index has been above the level of late 2007, the onset of the last recession.  To give the reader a sense of historical perspective, this index of industrial production has been produced for almost hundred years.  The average recovery period of civilian production is 2-1/2 years.  This recovery period of this past recession, 6 years, is second only to the  7-1/2 year recovery of the 1930s Depression.  I have excluded the 6-1/2 year post WW2 recovery period from war time production, which doubled production to produce goods and armaments for the war.  If that period is included, the average is 3 years.

Here is a comparison of the recovery periods since 1919.  The back to back dips of 1979 and 1980-83 were, in effect, one long dip lasting 4 years, making it the third worst recovery period of the past one hundred years.

When industrial production takes several years to regain the ground lost during a recession, it is vulnerable to even minor economic weaknesses.  As production recovered from a 7-1/2 year dip during the 1930s Depression, the Federal Reserve tightened money and production slid once again before reviving to produce arms to ship to British and European forces in the early years of World War 2.  Outgoing Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, a noted scholar of the 1930s Depression, understands the inherent weakness of an economy when production takes several years to recover.  For this reason, he was reluctant to ease up on monetary support until production was clearly and securely recovered.

The new Federal Reserve chairwoman, Janet Yellen, has decades of experience and is well aware of the fragility that is inherent in an economy that experiences a long period of industrial recovery.  This will be one of several factors that the Federal Reserve watches closely for any signs of faltering.  Those who think that the Fed will make any abrupt changes in monetary policy have not been reading the footprints left by the past.

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Productivity

Last August I wrote about the rather slow growth of multi-factorial productivity (MFP) since 2000.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates a meager 1% annual rate of growth in that time.  Far down in their historical tables is a revealing trend: Labor’s contribution to production has declined dramatically in the past ten years while capital’s share of inputs has increased.  Capital inputs include equipment, inventories, land and buildings.  In 2011, the most recent year available, labor’s share of input had decreased to 63.9%, far below the 60 year average of 68.1%.

Capital’s share of input had increased to 36.1%, far above the average 31.9%

As I mentioned last August, the headline productivity figures are misleading because they simply divide output by number of hours worked and ignore the contributions of capital to the final output.  As capital’s share of input increases, the contributors of that capital want more return, i.e. profit, on their increased contribution.

In the twelve years from 2000 – 2011, capital’s share of input has increased 20%, from 30% to 36%.  In that same period, after tax profits have grown by 130%, a whopping return on the additional 20% capital invested.  While overall MFP growth has slowed, the mix has changed.

Given such a rich return, we can expect this trend to continue until the growth of profits on ever larger capital investments reaches a plateau and slows.  Until then, labor’s share of productivity gains will be slight, acting as a continuing restraint on family incomes.

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Existing Home Sales

The 5 million sales of existing homes in 2013 was 9% above 2012 levels but the percentage of cash buyers has increased as well, now making up almost 1/3 of existing homes sales. (National Assn of Realtors).  The percentage of first time buyers declined from 30% in December 2012 to 27% in December 2013. For the past half year sales of existing homes have declined and the latest figures for February show a 7% decline from 2013 levels.

In May 2013, the price of Home Depot’s stock hit $80, a 400% rise from the doldrums of the spring of 2009.  Since then, it has traded in a close range around that price.  In May 2013, the price of the stock was 200% of the 4 year average, an indication that all of the optimism had been baked into the stock price.  It now trades at 160% of the 4 year average, rich but more reasonable if expectations for a continued housing recovery materialize.

In January 2000, the stock broke above $50 and was also trading at almost 250% of it’s 4 year average.  After trading in a range in the high $40s for several months, the stock began to fall.  By mid-June of 2000, the stock traded for 150% of its 4 year average.

The range bound price of Home Depot’s stock price for 8 months now is a good indication that investors have become watchful of the real estate sector, particularly the existing home market.  The percentage of cash buyers has risen 10%, replacing the similar decline in the number of first time home buyers.  Remember that this stalling is taking place at a time when interest rates are near historic lows.

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Reader questions

A reader posed a few questions about last weeks blog.

When annualized sales rates are down, but annualized inventory rates are up, is that usually because of prior contracts that businesses must accept?  Or is it usually hope for their future?  In other words, is a higher inventory rate a positive sign or a negative one?

When sales are going down and inventories are going up, it means that businesses were not prepared for the change in sales. This ratio measures the amount of surprise.  Businesses will then reduce their orders to factories, wholesalers, etc.  They may decide to reduce any hiring plans.  On the other hand, they might increase their marketing expense.  Look closely at the Inventory to Sales Ratio (ISRATIO) graph from the Fed.  In the early part of the recession in the first quarter of 2008, the ISRATIO moved up a bit, then down in the 2nd quarter but it was still in the subdued normal range of 1.25 to 1.30 established since 2006.  During the summer of 2008, the ISRATIO rose again but it was not until September 2008 that this ratio began it’s several month upward spike as sales crashed.

Re:  Decline in real personal consumption below 2.5% has ALWAYS led to a recession within a year.  Are there any substantive changes in how the economy is run now than in the past?  For example, has the Fed always been involved with quantitative easing like it is now?  Could that easing create a better economic climate despite personal consumption decline?  When we look at the past, are we generally comparing apples to apples?

The fact that a recession has always happened when inflation adjusted personal consumption falls below 2.5% does NOT mean that it will happen this time.  These are indicators, not predictors and we must remember that indicators of past trends are with revised data.  Investors and policy makers must make decisions with the currently available data, before it is fully complete. Personal consumption for 2013 could be revised higher in the coming quarters.  Some revisions happen as much as three years later.  What it does mean is that the Fed will be watching this sign of weakness in the consumer economy and is unlikely to make any dramatic policy changes.

So how do you think our leaders should lead in regards to SS?  Do you think the age should be raised to say 70?  Do you think we will not be able to depend on SS being there throughout our lifetimes?  It must be of great concern to your kids that it may not be there for them, esp. after having contributed over the years.

I think politicians will have to spread the pain on Social Security.  These suggestions are not new.

1) Raise the salary level that is subject to the tax so that more tax is captured from higher salaries.  This years maximum is $117K. (SSA) This is a tough sell.  The ratio of the maximum taxed earnings to the median household income (Census Bureau Table H.6) has gone up from 150% in 1980 to almost 220% in 2012.

Well to do people feel like they are already paying their “fair share.”  Senator Bernie Sanders and other Democrats use the ratio of the maximum taxed earnings to the top 10% of incomes to make the case that the maximum should be as high as $175K.  Computers and the availability of so much data enable policy makers and think tanks to produce whatever data set they want in order to support their conviction.

2)  Raise the employee and employer share of the tax .1% each year for the next five years.  Democrats will not like this one because it raises the burden on lower income families.

3)  Initially raise the social security age by two months each year over the next five years and index it to the growth in the life expectancy of a 65 year old so that the official retirement age is 15 years less than the life expectancy.  In 2025, if the life expectancy is 85 years, then the official retirement age would be 70.  Early retirement should be set at 3 years less than full retirement age.  In this case, early retirement would be 67.

All of these are tough choices and most politicians don’t want to touch them.   Voters are not noted for their prudence and are unlikely to pressure pressure policy makers for more taxes and less benefits. In order to sell these difficult proposals, I would add one more proposal.

4) Guarantee the payout of benefits for ten years, regardless of death.  Each retiree would name beneficiaries for their social security and payments would go to those beneficiaries until the 10 year anniversary that retirement benefits began.  This would incentivize retirees who could afford it to delay the start of their retirement benefits until 70, knowing that their heirs would get at least ten years of benefits. This delay would ease some of the fiscal shock as the boomer generation is now retiring.

Currently, the highest social security benefit is paid to a surviving spouse.  If a man dies with a higher monthly benefit than his wife, then the wife gets the husband’s higher benefit amount each month but loses her benefit.  Under this proposal, the wife would get her benefit and the husband’s benefit plus her benefit if her husband dies within ten years of retirement.  Often, a couple’s income is cut in half or by a third when a spouse dies.  Older women are particularly impacted, finding that they can no longer afford the mortgage or rent in their current housing situation. This feature would enhance the popular understanding that Social Security is like an insurance annuity.  It would help particularly vulnerable older surviving female spouses, an emotionally appealing feature that politicians could sell to voters, thus making it more likely that voters would accept the higher taxes and raised retirement age.  Whether the idea is fiscally sound is something that the Board of Trustees at the SSA could calculate.

Productivity

August 25th, 2013

(First a little housekeeping: an anonymous reader commented that when they clicked the “back” button after viewing a larger sized graph they were returned to the beginning of the blog post instead of where they had left off when they clicked on the smaller image within the text.  I suggest that, after viewing a graph, try clicking the ‘X’ button on the top right of the graph page to return to where you left off.   This works in the Chrome browser.)

Since the onset of the recession in late 2007, I have read many articles on the lack of wage growth despite big gains in productivity.  Ideas become popular when they have a narrative, one that I took for granted.  Each quarter, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) issues a report on productivity and labor costs that I have taken at face value.

The 2001 manual of the OECD manual states “Productivity is commonly defined as a ratio of a volume measure of output to a volume measure of input use.”  They frankly admit that “while there is no disagreement on this general notion, a look at the productivity literature and its various applications reveals very quickly that there is neither a unique purpose for, nor a single measure of, productivity.” (Source)

The authors of a recent paper at the Economics Policy Institute cite BLS data showing that productivity has grown “by nearly 25 percent” in the period 2000 – 2012 while the median real, that is inflation adjusted, earnings for all workers has essentially remained flat.   Company profits are at all time highs and workers are struggling.  The narrative is familiar but I wondered: how does the BLS calculate productivity growth?

What the “headline” productivity numbers describe is labor productivity, the output in dollars divided by the number of hours worked.  The BLS Handbook of Methods, page 92, gives a detailed description of its methodology.  As the BLS notes, this often cited productivity figure disregards capital investments in output like machinery and buildings.  For this reason, the BLS also calculates a less publicized multifactor  productivity measure using methodologies which do incorporate capital spending.  How does capital investment influence the productivity of a worker?

Consider the simple case of a man – I’ll call him Sam – with a handsaw who can make 20 cuts in a 2×4 piece of lumber in an hour.  His company charges customers a $1 for each cut, the going rate, so that the company can sell Sam’s labor for $20 per hour. Due to increased demand for wood cutting, the company invests $1000 to buy an electric chop saw.  The company calculates that Sam’s productivity will rise enough that they can undercut their competition and charge 75 cents a cut.  With the chop saw, Sam can now make 60 cuts per hour at .75 per cut = $45 dollars in revenue per hour to the company.  Sam’s labor productivity has now risen 150%.  In our simple case, this would be the headline labor productivity gain – 150%.

A more complete measure of productivity including capital investments is quite complex.  The latest edition of the OECD handbook notes that “there is a central practical problem to capital measurement that raises many empirical issues – how to value stocks and flows of capital in the absence of (observable) economic transactions.”  To illustrate the point further, the asset subgroup listed in the BLS handbook includes “28 types of equipment, 22 types of nonresidential structures, 9 types of residential structures (owner-occupied housing is excluded), 3 types of inventories (by stage of processing), and land.”

You want simple?  Let’s go back to our kindergarten example.  At this rate of production, let’s say that the saw’s useful life is only 10 months.  The company has an investment of $100 per month in the saw, plus additional costs like electricity, a bigger workbench, etc.  To round out the numbers, let’s say that equipment related costs are $150 a month.  If Sam’s output is 8 hours a day x $45 an hour, Sam is producing $360 per day in revenue for the company, or close to $8000 a month. The $150 a month in equipment costs is trivial and multi-factor productivity is very close to labor productivity.

Sam knows he is making much more money from the company and goes to his boss and says he wants a raise.  Not only is he producing more for the company but the electric saw is much more dangerous than a handsaw.  The company gives Sam a raise from $7 an hour to $8 an hour, an almost 15% increase that Sam is happy with.  In addition to the raise, the company has an additional $2 in mandated labor costs, bringing the total costs for Sam’s labor to $10 an hour.  Even with the higher labor costs, the company is raking in huge profits – $35 an hour – from Sam’s labor.

But now an inspector comes in and tells the company that, because an electric saw makes much more dust than a handsaw, the company will have to install a ventilation and filtering system so that the employees and neighbors won’t have to breathe sawdust.  The company gets bids that average $100,000 to install this system and the company estimates that the system will equal $1000 a month in additional capital costs.  Despite the additional costs, the company still continues to make substantial profits from Sam’s labor.  To the company, the capital costs for this new system represents about 60% of an additional worker’s labor costs, yet that additional cost is largely not included in measuring labor productivity because Sam’s hours and the revenue generated by Sam’s labor remain the same.

A multifactor productivity comparison of handsaw vs. chopsaw production would show a percentage growth of 40%, far below the 150% labor productivity growth.

All of us have our biases (except my readers who are perfectly rational beings) which cause us to look no further than the narrative that clearly supports our previous conceptions.  If we generally agree with the narrative of companies taking advantage of workers, we read of 25% productivity gains for companies and 0% gains for workers in the past twelve years, and we look no further – for the data has confirmed what we previously had concluded.  Big companies = bastards; workers = victims.

In June 2013, the BLS released revisions to their productivity figures for 2012 and included historical productivity gains for various periods since 1987.  During the past 25 years, multifactorial productivity, including capital investment, has averaged .9% per year – less than 1%.

While labor productivity has grown 25% since 2000, multifactorial productivity has been half that, at about 12%.   Dragging the 25 year average down is a meager .5% growth rate since 2007.  Even more striking is the growth rate of input into that recent tepid productivity growth; the BLS calculates 0% net input growth since 2007.  For the past 25 years, capital investment has grown at more than 3% but since the recession capital growth has slowed to 1.3% per year.  I wrote last week that there is an underlying caution among business owners and this further confirms that caution; companies have been cutting back on both labor and capital investment.

If multifactorial productivity rose by 12+ percent over the past 12 years, and the profits did not go to workers, where did the money go?  For a part of the puzzle, let’s look to inflation adjusted dividends of the SP500.

From the beginning of 2000 through 2007, when the recession began, inflation adjusted dividends grew at an annual rate of almost 3.8%, eating up most of the profits from productivity growth.  As bond yields continued to decline, I would guess that investors pressured companies for more of a share of the profits from productivity growth.

As workers lost manufacturing jobs during the 2000s, many were able to switch to construction jobs in the overheating real estate market and unemployment stayed low.  This should have pressured management to give into labor demands for an increased share of the productivity growth but it didn’t.  I suspect that the labor mix contributed to the lack of pressure on management.  Fewer manufacturing jobs meant fewer union jobs; a reduced labor union influence meant less demand on management.

Looking past the headline labor productivity gains, overall productivity is slow.  Capital and labor investment is slow, which means that future overall productivity is likely to remain slow.

While walking a trail in the Colorado Rockies years ago, my brothers and I complained about having to dodge moose poop on the trail.  Then we ran into the bull moose that made the poop.

CPI and Wages

Dec. 24th, 2012

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

This is part two of a look at the CPI, comparing the price index to wage growth.  Part 1 is here

In the years 1947-1980, the average hourly earnings of production workers rose 6.08% annually while the CPI grew 4.03% (Source)  In effect, earnings rose 2% higher than prices.   Since 1980, earnings have risen 3.55% annually as the CPI rose 3.29%, giving workers a real growth rate of less that a 1/3rd of 1%.

The rise in worker productivity fueled gains in worker compensation until the past fifteen years.  Below is a chart of real, that is inflation-adjusted, compensation and productivity.

Increased Productivity means more profits.  For several decades in the post-WW2 economy, workers shared in those profits.  After the recession of 1982-1984, workers’ share of the increase in output slowly decreased.  As incomes barely kept up with inflation, workers tapped the equity in their houses.

Low interest rates, poor underwriting standards, lax regulations and a feeding frenzy by both home buyers and banks fueled a binge in home prices, followed by the hangover that started in 2007.  Only now is the housing market struggling up out of a torpor that has lasted for several years.

Before the housing bust, magical thinking led many to believe that the rise in home equity was a sure fire way to riches.  Over a century’s worth of data shows that housing prices tend to rise about the same as the CPI.  Housing prices have finally bottomed out at about the same level as the long term trend line of CPI growth.

The boom and bust upended the lives of a lot of people and the repercussions of that “hump” will continue as banks continue to foreclose on home owners whose incomes have flattened or declined. The recovery in the housing market will help some home owners but the real problem is unemployment, underemployment and the decreasing share of workers’ share of the profits from productivity gains.  Until the labor market heals, the housing market will not fully heal.

Those who do have savings have become cautious.  Since 2006, investors have taken $572 billion out of stocks and put $767 billion in bonds, a move to safety – or so many retail investors think.  For decades, home prices never fell – until they did.  For over thirty years, bond prices have been rising, giving many retail investors the feeling that bonds are safe – until they are not.

Companies have been selling record amounts of corporate bonds into this cheap – for companies – bond market.  As this three decade long upward trend in bond prices begins to turn, bond prices can fall sharply as investors turn from bonds to stocks and other investments.  We are approaching the lows of interest yields on corporate bonds not seen since WW2.  Investors are loaning companies money at record low rates and companies are sucking up all that they can while they can.  Sounds a lot like home buying in the middle of the last decade, doesn’t it?

Y’all be careful out there, ya hear?