According to the conventional wisdom, data released this morning should be taken as an encouraging sign for the labor market.
U.S. companies will have to keep hiring steadily to meet their customers’ rising demand. That’s the message that emerged Wednesday from a report that employers are finding it harder to squeeze more output from their existing staff.
Worker productivity rose at an annual rate of 0.9 percent in the October-December quarter, the Labor Department said. While that’s a slight upward revision from last month’s preliminary estimate, it’s half the pace from the July-September quarter.
Productivity, the amount of output per hour of work, grew last year at the slowest pace in nearly a quarter of a century.
A slowdown is bad for corporate profits. But it can be a good sign for future hiring. It may mean that companies have reached the limits of what they can get out of their existing work force and must add more workers if they want to grow.
That trend already looks to be happening. A report Wednesday from ADP, a payroll provider, estimated that companies added 216,000 workers in February. The survey did not include government agencies, which have been cutting jobs.
A more reliable read on hiring will come Friday when the government issues its February jobs report. Expectations are high after two strong months of job growth in December and January, a steady decline in unemployment benefit applications and a jump in consumer confidence.
“The slowing trend in productivity growth has largely confirmed that the cyclical bounce in productivity that the economy typically experiences following a recession has run its course,” said Troy Davig, an analyst for Barclays Capital Research. “Future productivity gains are likely to be harder won, so firms will likely need to rely increasingly on adding to payrolls to increase output, rather than squeeze existing resources.”
Unfortunately, history suggests that’s not quite correct. As the following chart shows, a relatively sharp deceleration in the rate of productivity growth – like we’ve seen recently — has, except on two occasions over the past five decades, preceded or been associated with a slowdown in the pace of hiring.
Of course, this time could be different — right?