Aided by currency shifts, American manufacturers got some modest cost relief last year in their competition with foreign producers. While hourly compensation for U.S. factory workers rose just 2.2%, to $17.10, the Labor Dept. estimates that such costs in Germany and Japan hit new highs of $27.37 and $21.38 an hour, respectively. Hourly costs in the Pacific Tiger economies rose to about $5.81. The low man in the 24-nation tally was Mexico, with compensation of $2.57 an hour--a number that the fallen peso has dragged a lot lower this year.

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