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US first-quarter productivity unchanged; labour costs revised down

Monday, June 5, 2017 - 21:14

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US worker productivity was not as weak as initially thought in the first quarter, but the persistently soft trend is an obstacle to faster economic growth.

[WASHINGTON] US worker productivity was not as weak as initially thought in the first quarter, but the persistently soft trend is an obstacle to faster economic growth.

The Labor Department said on Monday nonfarm productivity, which measures hourly output per worker, was unchanged in the last quarter. It was previously reported to have declined at a 0.6 per cent annualised pace.

The government also reported that the growth in labor costs at the start of the year was not as strong as reported in May, which could cast doubts on the tightening labour market's ability to unleash robust wage growth.

The revision to first-quarter productivity was in line with economists' expectations. Productivity increased at an unrevised 1.8 per cent pace in the fourth quarter.

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Market voices on:

US financial markets were little moved by the report.

Compared to the first quarter of 2016, productivity grew at a 1.2 per cent rate, pointing to some improvement.

Productivity has increased at an average annual rate of 0.6 per cent over the last five years, below its long-term rate of 2.1 per cent from 1947 to 2016, indicating that the economy's potential rate of growth has declined.

That suggests the Trump administration could struggle to achieve its three per cent annual gross domestic product growth target. The economy grew at a 1.2 per cent pace in the first quarter. It grew 1.6 per cent in 2016 and annual GDP growth has not exceeded 2.6 per cent since the 2007-09 recession ended.

Economists blame low capital expenditure, which they say has resulted in a sharp drop in the capital-to-labor ratio, for the weakness in productivity. There are also perceptions that productivity is being inaccurately measured, especially on the information technology side.

Companies have been hiring more workers to maintain output. First-quarter output per worker was revised up to a 1.7 per cent growth rate from the previously reported one per cent pace.

The increase in output came as total hours worked increased at an upwardly revised 1.7 per cent rate. Hours worked were previously reported to have risen at a 1.6 per cent rate in the first quarter.

Unit labour costs, the price of labor per single unit of output, increased at a 2.2 per cent pace in the first quarter instead of the previously reported three per cent rate.

Compared to the first quarter of 2016, unit labour costs rose at a 1.1 per cent rate. Fourth-quarter unit labour costs were revised down to show them declining at a 4.6 per cent rate from the previously reported 1.3 per cent pace of increase.

Wage growth remains sluggish despite the unemployment rate being at a 16-year low of 4.3 per cent. Hourly compensation increased at a 2.2 per cent rate in the first quarter rather than the 2.4 per cent pace reported in May.

Hourly compensation rose at a 2.3 per cent rate from a year ago, down from the 3.9 per cent pace estimated last month.

REUTERS

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