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The US Economy’s Strange Decade

Weak productivity growth helps to explain the continued robust rates of job creation in the United States, as well as workers’ sluggish wage gains. If left unresolved, the productivity malaise will ensure that the current expansion remains uniquely unbalanced and unhealthy.

ZURICH – The current US economic expansion is extraordinary. Not only does it rival the longest on post-war record, but, unlike previous periods of sustained growth, it has not unleashed much inflation. Corporate profits have soared to unprecedented levels. And economic inequality in the United States is at its most extreme in a half-century.

Each of these unique features is paradoxically linked to another oddity: despite a mostly lackluster expansion since 2009, the US unemployment rate has fallen significantly further than would have been predicted by GDP growth alone. But perhaps the defining aspect of this strange decade-long expansion, and the one that helps to explain its main anomalies, is weak productivity growth.

Consider, first, the jobs phenomenon. Using a simple model relating unemployment to GDP growth – similar to Okun’s Law – indicates that the jobless rate has fallen by half a percentage point more per year during this expansion than history would have suggested. Since 2014, the rate of US employment growth has exceeded what GDP growth would have predicted by nearly one million jobs per year.