Sunday, December 17, 2017

Labor share: Where do they get those numbers?


So I can answer a question that's been in the back of my mind for a long time now.

Why is labor share more than 100%?

It's not percent, Art. It's an index.


Yeah I know. But how did it get so high? It's useless. It tells me labor share is going down, but it doesn't tell me what the share is, the share that labor gets. It should be a percentage. It's not, I know, but it should be.

So where do they get those numbers?

Labor share, as I learned a couple days ago, is calculated by taking compensation as a percent of current-dollar output.

It is a percentage -- see? I was right. It has to be a percentage.

But the thing is, it takes one set of indexed values as a percent of another set of indexed values. Indexed values are not the actual values. Indexed values are like a price index (duh, Art). They pick one year to be the base year, and they figure all the values as a percent of the base year value. So right away when they do that, the actual values are gone. You get a line on a graph that is the exact same shape you get from the original values, but the whole shape has been moved up or down until the base year value is equal to 100.

Seems harmless, right? Except of course the original numbers are gone. So you cannot look at labor share and find compensation as a percent of current dollar output, because you don't have those numbers anymore.


The name "labor share" sounds like it would give you compensation as a percent of current dollar output. But it doesn't work that way. When they pick a year to be the base year, something they do again every few years, they pick a date from the recent past. An arbitrary choice, let's say. Then they re-figure the data for all the years so that the new base year gets the value 100. All the numbers get changed.

One thing that's for sure is that the base year value is 100. If you have two data sets like compensation and current-dollar output, you can be sure that when you plot them on a graph, the two lines will cross in the base year. Because both data sets have the value 100 for the base year.

I don't know what compensation is, as a percent of current-dollar output. Maybe it's 80%. Maybe it's six. But I know for sure that compensation is going to be 100% of current-dollar output in the base year of a graph, because the numbers are indexed and the base year values are equal.

It's ridiculous to think that compensation and output are equal. That would mean labor share is 100% and capital share is zero, and I'm sure that's not the case. But that's all we can get from the indexed series called "labor share". That's all we can get even if we go back to the data that is used to calculate labor share, because that data is indexed, too.

So anyway, we know that labor share is compensation as a percent of current-dollar output, except the two lines cross at the 100 level in the base year. We also know that labor share has been going downhill for a long time.

Labor share goes downhill for a long time, and then the lines cross at the 100 level. So that means labor share has to be higher than the 100 level in the years before the base year. And sure enough, it is.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Reversal of fortune


Yesterday, looking at compensation and current-dollar output for the business sector, I said "we are looking at income and cost."

I was thinking of compensation as income, and the purchase of output as a cost.

I'm pretty sure economists have it the other way around.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Intuitive, but only after I saw it


Starting with the "productivity versus compensation" thing, I decided to look at aggregate totals rather than "per hour" numbers, and switched from "real" to "nominal" data. We're not looking at growth now, but we are looking at income and cost.

I figured compensation as a percent of current dollar output. Guess what it looks like: Labor share.

Graph #1: Compensation as a Percent of Output, nominal Business Sector index values
Exactly like labor share:

Graph #2: The Graph #1 Data (blue) and Labor Share (red)
I had no idea. I love it when that happens.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Since when? The Productivity–Pay Gap


Noah Smith at Bloomberg: Workers Get Nothing When They Produce More? Wrong. Noah shows this graph:

Graph #1: Employee Compensation is Falling Behind Already by 1962
Noah's article is about the way people interpret the graph. As he puts it, some people see compensation falling behind output and ask:

If productivity improvements don’t actually get translated into wages, what’s the point of making the economy more efficient?

They say the graph shows there is no sense in boosting productivity. Noah disagrees, as you can tell from the title of his article. He cites a study that looks at short-term changes and sees "a correlation between productivity and wages -- when productivity rises, wages also tend to rise." But over the longer term, compensation falls behind productivity because of "forces pushing in the other direction" he says.

That's interesting. It leads to questions: What forces? And: Why? And: What can be done about this? It opens doors.

Before we come up with a solution to the problem of lagging compensation, we have to know the cause of the problem. We don't yet know the cause. We don't even know when the problem started, so how can we know the cause?

If you don't know when the problem started, how can you possibly know the cause? And if you don't know the cause, how can you possibly know the solution?

How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat?


When did the problem start? Noah doesn't say:

Since the end of World War II, productivity, in terms of economic output per hour, has grown by a factor of five, while compensation has only tripled. Since 1980 the divergence has been especially stark ...

More stark divergence may indicate a new phase, but does not mark the start of the problem. In any case, on Noah's graph I don't see a more stark divergence beginning around 1980. I see a kink in both lines shortly after 1972, and a kink in both lines around 1997. Nothing around 1980, other than a brief dip in productivity. Not even a wiggle in compensation. Look at the graph.

It looks to me that, for Noah's data at least, productivity and compensation ran neck-and-neck from 1947 to just before 1962. Call it 1960. A gap opens after 1960. This is where the problem begins. Not 1980.

There is a kink around 1973, and then compensation slows more than productivity. Maybe the second stage of the problem begins in 1973.

There is another kink around 1997, after which productivity accelerates upward and compensation does not. This would be the third stage.

If you hover a mouse over Graph #1 you will see the trends I'm looking at.

Around 1980 or 1982 there is nothing but a wiggle in productivity which is surely the result of the double-dip recession that occurred at that time. No wiggle is visible in the compensation data for those years.

Perhaps Noah sees stark divergence since 1980 because he has heard people speak of it a million times. Or perhaps he is thinking of this graph from Robert Reich:

Graph #2. Source: the Preservation Institute Blog.
Ritholtz at The Big Picture shows this graph as part of a larger image
and links to an article by Robert Reich at the New York Times.
Reich puts a white stripe down the graph at 1980. The white stripe is a conclusion imposed on the data, a conclusion that intrudes upon unbiased evaluation. The data on Robert Reich's graph is not the same as that shown on Noah Smith's graph, yet both graphs show productivity and compensation running together from 1947 to about 1960, and productivity gaining on compensation since that time.

You could say that Robert Reich put the white stripe at the point where compensation peaks and starts to fall. This would explain why the white stripe appears at 1980. But by 1980, compensation had been falling behind productivity for 20 years, as you can plainly see on Reich's graph.

Noah's data is not the same as Robert Reich's. Noah's graph shows a change around 1973, and a change around 1997. It shows nothing but a recession-related wiggle in productivity around 1980. And yet Noah's "stark divergence" begins in 1980, at the same moment that Robert Reich's white stripe appears. Why?

Our views are influenced by the views of others. Perhaps Noah sees stark divergence since 1980 because he has heard people say it a million times, or has seen it on Reich's graph.

At the Preservation Institute where I found Reich's graph, the evaluation of the graph is based more on the white stripe than on the data:

From 1947 to 1979, the compensation of non-supervisory workers increased by almost as much as productivity.

From 1980 to the present, compensation stagnated as productivity continued to grow - partly because of deliberate economic policies that were adopted by the Reagan administration ...

Indeed, pointing the finger at Reagan may be the real reason for locating that white stripe at 1980. But even if that is not the case, Reich's white stripe evaluates the data for us, before we can evaluate it for ourselves. No thank you, Mr. Reich.

I don't see a "more stark divergence" after 1980. But don't think that I am defending Ronald Reagan. Reagan's policies did nothing to close the gap between compensation and productivity. Reagan did his share to keep the gap growing. But Reagan did not do more than his share. Not according to Noah's graph.


Now comes the part where I duplicate the original graph so I can examine the data.

I wasn't sure what data series Noah used in his graph, but he does say Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis so I'm thinkin FRED. FRED doesn't have a lot of data series that match "Real output per hour" or "Real compensation per hour" and go all the way back to 1947. I only find data for the "business sector" and the "nonfarm business sector". So I could throw darts at this, blindfolded, and not be very far off.

I duplicated Noah's graph once for "business" and once for "nonfarm business". Both were close, but neither exactly matched what Noah showed. Maybe there was a recent revision? No matter. I'll go with "business sector" and index the values on the first quarter of 1947. That'll be close enough.

Here's what I got:

Graph #3: My Attempt to Duplicate Noah's Graph -- A Pretty Good Match
My lines both start at 100, like Noah's. One line ends at 300 and the other at 500, as Noah shows. And I got colors comparable to his. So far, so good. The gap on my graph starts just after 1960 and shows trend changes around 1973 and 1997, just like Noah's graph. But the wedge opens up more slowly on my graph. Between 1960 and 1970 I show a narrow gap between the two lines; Noah's gap looks wider. Or maybe it's just my eyes. Whatever, I'm going with this data.

Data in hand, I want to look at the gap between productivity and compensation. A simple way to do that is to subtract compensation from productivity. If productivity is higher than compensation -- which it is -- then the graph will show how much higher the productivity number is. It will show the difference, the gap.

Here's what I get:

Graph #4: The Size of the Productivity-Compensation Gap
"Since 1980," Noah says, "the divergence has been especially stark". I don't see it. The gap is obviously bigger in the later years. But there is no "kink" in the blue line around 1980, and no acceleration thereafter. The line just goes up, the same after 1980 as before.

Just after the year 2000, yeah, there does seem to be a kink there. And the line goes up faster after that, for a while. But it's 20 years too late. You can't blame Reagan. There is no kink and no acceleration around 1980 on this graph. There is no sudden change in the growth of the gap. What was Noah thinkin?

Nor is there a dramatic increase since 1973, contrary to what EPI claims. The line is obviously higher after 1973 than before, but there is no sudden change in the upward trend. The pace is constant since 1961.

Hey, when you're looking at the gap between two jiggy lines, it is difficult to see exactly the size of the gap. But when you subtract the one line from the other, as on Graph #4, there is nothing left to look at but the gap. And then it is easy to see the size and shape of the gap.

The gap opens around 1961, or possibly earlier. The gap shows consistent increase. There is no sudden acceleration after 1973. There is no sudden acceleration after 1980. There is just consistent increase. I moved the data into Excel and put a trend line on it:

Graph #5: A Trend Line Added to the Data from Graph #4
If anything, the line looks a little low in the 1980s and '90s, relative to trend.

No sudden surge around 1980. No sudden surge around 1973. Only a continuous and stable increase in the gap since 1961.

What are the forces pushing compensation down while productivity rises? The Reagan revolution may be part of the problem. The economic slowdown after 1973 may be part of it. But the problem didn't begin in the 1970s or '80s. It began in the 1960s, or before. To discover the troublesome forces, we have to look to that earlier time.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Labor Productivity since 1988


I like this graph of labor productivity. The red and blue data lines look like trend lines for the jiggy green:

Graph #1: Labor Productivity
See how productivity has been really low most of the time since 2010? You know about that.

It was very low like that for two or three years before 1995. Then all of a sudden it went high and the economy was good for a while. Yeah, I expect that to happen again soon and I think we're getting there now.

What else do you see on the graph? Productivity always goes high after a recession. After the 1991 recession on this graph, and after the 2001 recession, and even after the Great Recession. A good big fat spike after the Great Recession. And then nothing.

Any minute now it will go up, like in the mid-90s. If you run that red line out to the end of the graph, it's going up.

Any minute now ...

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Recommended reading: Steve Denning


Prior to 1982, large stock buybacks were illegal because they constituted obvious stock price manipulation. But the SEC in the Reagan administration introduced a new rule—Rule 10b-18—which creates “a safe harbor” for firms to buy back as many shares as they like. This effectively opened the floodgates.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Well that was quick!


Goldilocks is back -- The Economist, 17 October 2017

Time is running out on 'Goldilocks' -- CNBC, 5 December 2017

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Twin Peaks


It’s no mere coincidence that over the last century the top earners’ share of the nation’s total income peaked in 1928 and 2007 — the two years just preceding the biggest downturns.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Quantum Unemployment


Call me the duplicator: See a graph, make a graph.

Look up Okun's Law, and this graph comes up:

Graph #1: Okun's Law. Source: Wikipedia
I always want to see how it works: What is the data? What are the units? Can I duplicate the graph? It's an automatic process. I don't decide that I want to do it. I just do it. I don't know why. But anyway, the data series are Real GDP, and UNRATE at FRED. The values are quarterly. The unit for GDP growth is "percent change", and the unit for unemployment is just "change" because it starts as percent. So yeah, I can do that.

Here's what I got:

Graph #2: Okun's Law at FRED
The horizontal black line on the second graph is the X-axis, not the trend. Ignore it. Look at the shape of the cluster of blue dots: high on the left, low on the right. A "best fit" trend line would run from high on the left to low on the right, just like the trend line on the first graph. So I'm satisfied: I duplicated the graph.

I even got blue dots! My dots are all the same color, all faint blue. Some of them look dark because they overlap. There are more dots in the middle of the cluster than elsewhere, and they overlap and it makes them look dark blue. If you look at the first graph, there are more dots in the middle of the cluster there, too.

So that's what I saw when I looked at my graph. And then I noticed something odd: My dots are all arranged in columns, with blank space between the columns. You probably noticed it before I did. It's like unemployment always makes a quantum leap from one level to the next, as you go from left to right.

The other graph doesn't show that.

No, I know what it is: FRED rounded the unemployment numbers to one decimal place. You can see it, from the way the columns are spaced. And sure enough, if you hover over the graph at FRED it shows the unemployment values rounded to one decimal place.

Damn, I thought I was on to something with "quantum" unemployment!