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US Productivity Falls for the First Time Since 2015, Gold Price Climbs

Nonfarm productivity in the US dropped for the first time in four years, falling -0.3% annually in Q3 2019. The results are in stark contrast with the expectations of a 0.9% increase, indicating that the rise in efficiency earlier in the year was anomalous rather than trend-setting.

Key Takeaways

  • US productivity dropped -0.3% in Q3 compared to 2.5% growth in Q2 and 0.9% growth expected.
  • Labor costs have reportedly accelerated from 2.4% growth to 3.6% growth.
  • The report indicates an economic slowdown in Q3 as the effects of 2018’s tax cuts continue to fade.

The latest report on US nonfarm productivity indicates an economic slowdown, supported by other financial reports throughout the year. The big miss in productivity raises the question of whether the tax cuts implemented in 2018 had any long-term benefits, failing to prop up business investment which has contracted significantly due to the ongoing trade war. Labor costs have increased to 3.6% growth, exacerbating the issue. While quarterly reports can be volatile, productivity gains have been mostly weak throughout the current period of economic expansion which is in its tenth year.

Unit labor costs rose 3.1%, the fastest gain since 2014, perhaps indicating that the tight labor market is affecting wage growth activity. The drop in productivity stemmed from a 2.1% increase in output vs. a 2.4% gain in hours worked.

Expert Outlook

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell suggested recently that official figures may underestimate productivity by failing to account for the time saved with high-speed internet connections and the widespread availability of internet-connected devices, saying “We can now be constantly connected to the accumulated knowledge of humankind and receive near instantaneous updates on the lives of friends far and wide.”

Powell went on to say that “adding to the measurement challenge, many of these services are free, which is to say, not explicitly priced. How should we value the luxury of never needing to ask for directions? Or the peace and tranquility afforded by speedy resolution of those contentious arguments over the trivia of the moment?” Fed Vice Chairman for Supervision Randal Quarles pointed to the rise in AI and 3D printing technology as innovations that may boost productivity over time, saying the first-half pickup in productivity had still given him optimism after years of “abysmal” performance.

Market Reaction

Gold prices have risen today, trading near $1,500. Spot gold last traded at $1,486.55/oz, up 0.39% with a high of $1,489.52/oz and a low of $1,480.28/oz. Today’s rise in price can be seen as a natural correction from yesterday’s pullback which was a result of upbeat financial reports from the services sector.