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US third-quarter productivity pared; unit labour costs revised up

US third-quarter productivity pared; unit labour costs revised up

Workers disinfect a production line while maintaining social distancing at the start of a shift at Green Circuits as the company, an essential business, adapts to operating during the outbreak of the fast-spreading coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in San Jose, California, on Apr 2, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Stephen Lam)

WASHINGTON: US worker productivity increased strongly in the third quarter, though the pace of growth was likely overstated as the sharp rebound in output from the COVID-19 pandemic recession has far outpaced employment gains.

The Labor Department said on Tuesday nonfarm productivity, which measures hourly output per worker, increased at a 4.6 per cent annualised rate last quarter. The slight downward revision from the 4.9 per cent pace estimated last month followed a 10.6 per cent rate of growth in the second quarter, which was the fastest since the first quarter of 1971.

The economy expanded at a historic 33.1 per cent annualised rate in the July-September quarter, thanks to more than US$3 trillion in government pandemic relief for businesses and workers. That followed a record 31.4 per cent pace of contraction in the second quarter. Strong productivity explains the divergence between GDP growth and the labour market.

The economy has recouped two-thirds of output lost during the coronavirus crisis, while only about 56 per cent of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April. A wide gap between output and employment is not unusual during recessions, with a similar trend observed during the 2007-09 Great Recession.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast productivity growth would be unrevised at a 4.9 per cent rate in the third quarter. The COVID-19 downturn has decimated lower-wage industries, like leisure and hospitality, which economists say tend to be less productive.

According to Moodys' Analytics chief economist, Mark Zandi, there has been a shift in economic activity to big companies from small and medium-sized retailers. Zandi also noted that big businesses across industries are taking advantage of the pandemic to aggressively implement labour-saving technology.

"The underlying rate of productivity has not shifted from what it was before," said Zandi. "There is no fundamental shift in productivity growth going forward, but it means it's going to take a while to recover all the jobs lost unless we have good policy in place."

US financial markets were little moved by the data.

Compared to the third quarter of 2019, productivity increased at a 4.0 per cent rate instead of the 4.1 per cent pace reported last month.

Hours worked rebounded at a 37.1 per cent rate, rather than the 36.8 per cent rate estimated in November. That followed a record 42.9 per cent pace of decline in the second quarter.

Unit labour costs - the price of labour per single unit of output - plunged at a 6.6 per cent rate instead of an 8.9 per cent rate as previously reported. Unit labour costs rose at a 12.3 per cent pace in the second quarter. They increased at a 4.0 per cent rate from a year ago.

"The big swings in the unit labour costs data in recent quarters make it hard to detect an underlying trend, but overall we think that the shock to the economy coming from COVID-19 should weigh on employee compensation," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

Hourly compensation fell at a 2.3 per cent rate last quarter, instead of a 4.4 per cent pace as previously reported. That followed a 24.3 per cent rate of acceleration in the second quarter. Compensation increased at a 8.2 per cent rate compared to the third quarter of 2019.

Source: Reuters

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