Thursday, May 18, 2017

US Labor Market Disconnect - Productivity vs Compensation

The US labor market has been at the center of economic debates since we all realized that the Fed would not be able to generate positive inflation in line with long run expectations through monetary interventions. With the official unemployment rate at levels associated with full employment, one can reasonably expect to see consistent upward pressure on wages. This is not the case however. Basic reasoning would suggest that as workers become more and more productive relative to hours worked, they would be compensated more, but again, that’s not the case. Per Bureau of Labor Statistics data, since the Great Recession the divergence between labor productivity and labor compensation has been exacerbated.

The productivity-compensation gap—defined as labor productivity divided by labor compensation.

In the almost decade since the onset of the Great Recession, the issue of compensation not keeping up with productivity has been becoming more pronounced. Because so many workers got displaced during the Great Recession many people had to completely re-tool themselves for the labor market. With elevated levels of new entrants with limited levels of work-specific experience, wage pressures turned negative. This trend in conjunction with a rotation away from baby-boomers and towards millennials also means that technological adoption and implementation has been set on an accelerated path. 

The longer-term trend in labor compensation versus labor productivity was one of tandem movement, until about the mid-70s. This period reflects a macro shift away from manufacturing as the industrial base of the US economy to a more services dominated base. The shift also means that corporate productivity measures depend less and less on the input of labor, and more and more on the input of technological innovation. The decade covering the late 70s to the late 80s would have also been marked by large numbers of workers being displaced and having to re-tool themselves for the new labor market.
Its seems like the adage “History repeats itself…” rings true in this instance. Except for the caveat, that intrinsic problems in an economy left unattended for thirty years will only get worst over time.  This brings to mind one of the tenets of finance, compounding does work.