August 14 2020

Unit labor costs might be a term that is not familiar to you.  Unit labor costs represent the increase in compensation adjusted for the gains in productivity.  You might think that if labor costs are rising that would put upward pressure on inflation.    It does not matter so much what wages are doing, but what wages adjusted for the change in productivity is doing.  Think of it this way.  If I pay you 3% more money, on the surface you might think that my costs as a businessman have just gone up by 3%.  That is not quite true.  What if you are 3% more productive?  Then I am getting 3% more output from you, so I really do not care.  I am very happy to pay you 3% more money.  In this case, unit labor costs, or labor costs adjusted for the gain in productivity, are 0%.  To take the example one step farther, if I pay you 3% higher wages but you are no more productive, then unit labor costs are rising by 3% and I am probably going to raise my prices to offset the higher cost of labor.  So, a gain of that magnitude in unit labor costs is quite likely to exert upward pressure on inflation.  So always watch what is happening to unit labor costs and not just wages.

Unit labor costs surged by 12.2% in the second quarter after having jumped 9.8% in the first quarter.  But both figures were significantly impacted by the recession.  In the second quarter compensation rose 20.4% as the tax refund checks bolstered income.  But productivity climbed by 7.3%.  Thus, unit labor costs — labor costs adjusted for the change in productivity — rose 12.2%.  If no more more refund checks are distributed in the third quarter then compensation is likely to fall abruptly, most likely by more than the drop in productivity.  The end result is that unit labor costs should fall sharply in the third quarter.

Stephen Slifer


Charleston, SC