There is an interesting article in the WSJ regarding recessions and productivity numbers. As seen in the figure below, the last six recessions have occurred at a time when productivity numbers were decreasing (although the numbers were still positive for the last two recessions, and productivity was relatively strong during the most recent recession in 2001).

Source: Wall Street Journal

While productivity has averaged 0.8% over the last six recessions, it is currently growing at an annual average rate of 2.5%. This is important since high productivity numbers allow the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates lower than normal since higher prices are being matched with higher productivity, at least to some extent. As an example, if workers are making x% more of a product in the same amount of time, then wages can increase by the same x% and the per unit labor cost will stay the same. Simplistic, but you get the idea. Productivity gains were the key to the 1990s, and one of the reasons Alan Greenspan was often espousing the benefits of high productivity, providing yet another reason to keep interest rates low, sub-prime notwithstanding.

Of course, higher productivity can allow you to keep from hiring new workers, or even allow you to reduce headcount, since now you can do more with less. Furthermore, the current high productivity numbers may just be an artifact of the recent environment. Housing, which is a less productive industry, is currently being shifted out of while higher productivity industries, like those exporting, are increasing in emphasis. The weak dollar is also having an effect in amplifying the export-based productivity numbers. Given that the U.S. is trading overseas more now than in the past, the higher export productivity numbers make sense.

So, if productivity is not cooperating for those talking recession, what about other numbers in comparison to previous economic conditions, such as the stagflation days of the 1970s that many analysts are comparing the current conditions to? Given higher energy costs, producer price increases for finished goods are worse now than during the 1970s, causing lower consumer confidence and higher levels of consumer credit as a percentage of GDP. The savings rate is down, as it has been for a while, and the number of vacant homes is increasing.

Yet, all is not bad, or falling off a cliff. The ISM index is hovering about the benchmark contraction / expansion levels, and disposal income has still not collapsed, even with increasing job losses. Industrial production, while flat, is also not severely contracting. Furthermore, core CPI (without food and energy) is not excessive, nor is core PPI. The unemployment rate, while rising, is also not yet close to approaching high single and low double digit levels. High productivity is keeping unit labor cost down (as discussed before), and wages have stayed in check for corporations. After-tax corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are also still good, and long-term Treasury yields are not excessive in comparison to the stagflation years.

So in short, is the picture rosy? No. But are we heading for another decade of stagflation with sustained lower growth and high inflation? Right now the data does not point to this conclusion, regardless of the continued comparisons. Housing and crude oil still seem to be ruling the day, the fallout of which is affecting nearly everything in the economy. When the former finally turns around, and the later sells off with conviction, we may be able to finally get rid of both the "stag" and "flation".