The U.S. economy went on something of a crash diet during the Great Recession, cutting millions of Americans from the workforce and squeezing dramatic productivity gains from those who remained. Unit labor costs dropped and output per hour rose as busiensses became leaner and meaner. But slimming down can only increase efficiency to a point, and as the economy has recovered, the pendulum has appeared to swing back in favor of workers. Revised estimates released yesterday by the Labor Department show that productivity growth slowed to 0.9 percent annualized at the end of last year, down from 1.8 percent in the previous quarter. And unit labor costs rose 2.8 percent, more than doubling earlier estimates.
That bodes well for tomorrow's jobs report, which is expected to show modest gains throughout the economy. If productivity is slowing, than the only way businesses can expand output is to hire more people. Hopefully that will put sufficient pressure on wages, which have plenty of room to rise against price markup without any inflationary effect.
But let's not miss the forest for the trees—or in this case, the historic trend for the market correction. The graph below—which plots productivity growth against labor costs since 1990—shows that the divergence between efficiency gains and wage compensation is a long-term trend that is not likely to be altered by the recovering labor market. The underlying problem remains intensifiying income inequality, here expressed as workers' decreasing share of corporate profits. Although tomorrow's job numbers are likely to be another piece of good news for the economy—joining high consumer confidence and declining unemployment insurance applications on a growing list of positive indicators—it is critical that we do not allow the conversation about systemic inequality to fade into the shadows. The graph below illustrates a tectonic, not cyclical, shift. We'll need more than a band-aid to correct our course.