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Productivity: All Signs Are Go

Economic Trends

Productivity: All Signs Are Go

Tech investment feeds Fed optimism

Not so long ago, Federal Reserve officials were telling the public that productivity gains had lifted the U.S. economy's potential growth rate in the 1990s to a healthy 3.5% to 4% range. Recently, however, they have hinted that even that relatively optimistic assessment may be too conservative.

Last month, Robert T. Parry, president of Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, opined that the economy's potential growth rate this year and next was 5%. After standing firm on interest rates at its August meeting, the Fed's open-market committee pointedly noted that "more rapid advances in productivity have been raising potential growth, as well as containing costs."

And of course, at a Fed conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., several weeks ago, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan struck a new note in his paean to the New Economy. Citing the stepped-up pace of high-tech investment, he suggested that productivity growth may well continue to accelerate in coming years.

What's inspiring this unbridled optimism? Noting Greenspan's caution and insistence on detailed economic analysis, two seasoned Fed watchers, economists Peter Hooper and Trevor Dinmore of Deutsche Bank, believe the Fed is relying on more than the latest productivity data. "Greenspan and company are looking at some hard evidence," say Hooper.

In a new study, Hooper and Dinmore analyze the implications of the key evidence they think the Fed is using--a recent paper by two Fed staffers, Stephen D. Oliner and Daniel E. Sichel. The paper found that the U.S. business stock of information-technology capital (computers, software, and communications gear) soared throughout the economy in the late 1990s. The result was a sharp rise in capital-labor ratios, which, the Fed staffers estimate, boosted worker productivity growth by a full percentage point between the first and second halves of the 1990s.

Hooper and Dinmore extend the Oliner and Sichel economic model to focus on what has already happened this year and what lies ahead in 2001. They find that the growing tech capital stock alone is adding around 1 3/4 percentage points to productivity growth this year and next. As a result, the economy's sustainable growth rate is around 4.5%--and could be even higher next year.

In short, says Hooper, productivity-enhancing IT investment is continuing to raise the economy's "safe" speed limit. As long as such investment stays strong--and underlying inflation stays subdued--it's likely that the Fed will be slow to step on the monetary brakes.By Gene KoretzReturn to top

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More European Men Opt Out of the Workforce

Fewer younger and older men have jobs

In both Europe and the U.S., the working-age share of the population will shrink considerably in coming decades--putting downward pressure on living standards. As a recent analysis by economist Patricia S. Pollard of the Federal Reserve Board of St. Louis makes clear, however, European nations face even greater pressure because of trends in labor-force participation by both younger and older men.

In most advanced nations, the share of women in the workforce has surged in recent decades. Yet in much of Europe, unlike the U.S., total labor-force participation has hardly risen. The reason? Many younger and older men no longer work.

In France, the share of 20- to 24-year-old males in the labor force fell from 86% in 1967 to 53% in 1998, and the share of those aged 60 to 64 plunged from 63% to 15% after the normal retirement age was lowered to 60 in the 1980s. In Germany, the comparable declines over the same period were 86% to 72%, and 78% to 30%.

In the U.S., these trends have been less pronounced, particularly among younger men. That fact, and the recent decline in U.S. unemployment and rise in productivity, bode well for America's ability to meet the demographic challenge ahead. But Europe will have to reverse its trends toward late entry into and early exit from the labor force in order to thrive.By Gene KoretzReturn to top

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