Recessions don’t usually look like this, at least when it comes to productivity.
In the six U.S. recessions since 1970, worker productivity, or output per hour, grew a sluggish 0.8%, on average. But since the end of last year, even amid economic weakness, productivity is estimated to have grown an average 2.5% at an annual rate.
Productivity’s path isn’t just an academic debate. That productivity is staying strong even in bad times has important implications for economic growth, inflation, employment and, ultimately, living standards. For example, strong productivity growth, by countering inflation pressures from energy and commodities, allows the U.S. Federal Reserve to keep interest rates lower than it otherwise might, helping it stoke the economy.
But “it’s a bit of a two-edged sword,” said Chris Varvares of Macroeconomic Advisers, since efficiency gains could mean that companies can get by with fewer workers, exacerbating unemployment in the short run.
Some economists say the current healthy growth in productivity reflects a shift in the economy from less productive domestic sectors like home building and into exporting industries, which tend to be highly efficient. That shift has been aided by the weak dollar, which has made U.S. exports more competitive.
“It’s a compositional story,” said Dale Jorgenson, a productivity expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Productivity, he explained, is “languid” in construction, so the decline of building as a share of the economy in recent quarters “is certainly going to be positive for productivity” on average.