3Q Labor Cost Data Point To Weak Profit Growth

By: Paul Kasriel | Wed, Nov 29, 2006
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In addition to revisions to third-quarter GDP data, the Commerce Department will release its first estimate of third-quarter corporate profits tomorrow, November 29. As Chart 1 shows, quarter-to-quarter profit growth slowed sharply in the second quarter - to 1.45% from 12.60% in the first quarter. Based on third-quarter labor cost data, I suspect that third-quarter corporate profit growth, measured sequentially, will remain tepid, at best. On a year-over-year basis, however, corporate profit growth is likely to appear rosier given the Katrina-depressed profits in the third quarter of 2005.

Chart 1

Here's the explanation. Chart 2 shows that in 2006, unit labor costs in the nonfarm business sector are now consistently growing faster than the prices nonfarm businesses receive for their goods and services. It can be shown algebraically that growth in the implicit price deflator for nonfarm business output minus growth in nonfarm business labor unit costs is equivalent to the gross revenues of nonfarm businesses minus their total labor costs.

Chart 2

Because labor costs account for the majority of production costs in the United States, rising growth in labor costs relative to the growth in total revenues would be expected to have a negative impact on corporate profits. And, in fact, this is exactly what the historical record shows, as demonstrated in Chart 3. Using annual average data, the contemporaneous correlation between these two series is 0.69 out of a possible 1.00. With unit labor costs rising relative to selling prices and with sales volumes slowing, it is difficult to see how corporate profit growth in the near-term can be very strong. And if profit growth slows, where will corporations get the funds to continue "retiring" equity at a record pace - a factor supporting share prices and household deficit pending?

Chart 3



Paul Kasriel

Author: Paul Kasriel

Paul L. Kasriel
Director of Economic Research
The Northern Trust Company
Economic Research Department
Positive Economic Commentary
"The economics of what is, rather than what you might like it to be."
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Paul Kasriel

Paul joined the economic research unit of The Northern Trust Company in 1986 as Vice President and Economist, being named Senior Vice President and Director of Economic Research in 2000. His economic and interest rate forecasts are used both internally and by clients. The accuracy of the Economic Research Department's forecasts has consistently been highly-ranked in the Blue Chip survey of about 50 forecasters over the years. To that point, Paul received the prestigious 2006 Lawrence R. Klein Award for having the most accurate economic forecast among the Blue Chip survey participants for the years 2002 through 2005. The accuracy of Paul's 2008 economic forecast was ranked in the top five of The Wall Street Journal survey panel of economists. In January 2009, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes cited Paul as one of the few who identified early on the formation of the housing bubble and foresaw the economic and financial market havoc that would ensue after the bubble inevitably burst. Through written commentaries containing his straightforward and often nonconsensus analysis of economic and financial market issues, Paul has developed a loyal following in the financial community. The Northern's economic website was listed as one of the top ten most interesting by The Wall Street Journal. Paul is the co-author of a book entitled Seven Indicators That Move Markets.

Paul began his career as a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He has taught courses in finance at the DePaul University Kellstadt Graduate School of Business and at the Northwestern University Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Paul serves on the Economic Advisory Committee of the American Bankers Association.

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