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Economy in Brief

U.S. Productivity Jumps in Q2 as Hours Fall More Than Output
by Gerald D. Cohen  August 14, 2020

• Productivity rose at a 7.3% annual rate in Q2; gains of this magnitude not uncommon during recessions.

• Real output dropped at a 38.9% rate while hours collapsed 43.0%.

• Revisions change pattern of growth, but on net small.

Productivity in the nonfarm business sector jumped at a greater-than-expected 7.3% seasonally adjusted annual rate (saar) during Q2'20 (2.2% year-on-year). This followed an upwardly-revised 0.3% decline in Q1'20 (was -0.9%). The Action Economics Forecast Survey expected just a 0.2% increase in Q2.

Productivity is measured as output per hour worked. So, while real output collapsed 38.9%, this was more than offset by the 43.0% annualized drop in hours worked. Hours fell from both cutbacks in employment (-41.0% saar) and weekly hours for those on the job (-3.4% saar). While the drivers of this productivity reading are unprecedented -- data goes back to 1947 -- productivity growth and volatility of this magnitude are not uncommon during recessions. Meanwhile revisions raised productivity growth in 2015, lowered it a bit in 2017 and 2019, and left the level of productivity 0.3% higher in Q1'20.

Compensation per hour and unit labor costs were buffeted by the same forces as productivity. A record 31.4% saar drop in compensation was more than offset by the 43.0% saar collapse in hours putting compensation per hour up at 20.4% rate. Dividing the jump in compensation by the rise in productivity resulted in a 12.2% gain in unit labor costs. Similar to productivity, while the drivers of unit labor costs experienced extraordinary moves, the growth in unit labor cost growth are not unique.

The manufacturing sector experienced the inverse of nonfarm business. Factory sector productivity fell at 15.5% rate last quarter (-4.1% y/y) with output dropping more (-47.0% saar) than hours (-37.3% saar). Since manufacturing is part of nonfarm business, this implies that non-manufacturing productivity growth was even stronger in Q2. Factory compensation per hour rose at a 10.7% pace pushing unit labor costs up at a 31.1% rate. In contrast to nonfarm business, the collapse in productivity and jump in unit labor costs were unprecedented.

The productivity and cost figures dating back to 1947 are available in Haver's USECON database. The expectations figures are from the Action Economics Forecast Survey and are found in the AS1REPNA database.

Productivity & Costs (SAAR, %) Q2'20 Q1'20 Q4'19 Q1 Y/Y 2019 2018 2017
Nonfarm Business Sector
Output per Hour (Productivity) 7.3 -0.3 1.6 2.2 1.7 1.4 1.2
Compensation per Hour 20.4 9.4 3.3 8.0 3.6 3.4 3.5
Unit Labor Costs 12.2 9.8 1.7 5.7 1.9 1.9 2.2
Manufacturing Sector
Output per Hour (Productivity) -15.5 1.6 -0.7 -4.1 0.1 0.3 -0.4
Compensation per Hour 10.7 6.2 5.2 5.0 2.9 2.1 3.2
Unit Labor Costs 31.1 4.6 6.0 9.4 2.8 1.8 3.6
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