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Productivity Picks Up as U.S. Companies Reduce Labor Costs

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg) -- The productivity of U.S. workers expanded more than previously estimated in the third quarter as companies cut labor expenses to preserve profits.

The measure of employee output per hour climbed at a 2.9 percent annual rate, the biggest gain in two years and up from 1.9 percent in the prior three months, revised Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of 58 economists called for a 2.8 percent rise. Costs per worker fell at a 1.9 percent rate, more than previously estimated.

Concern about slowing global demand and the looming fiscal tightening signals companies may restrain hiring and keep a lid on wages until sales accelerate. The decline in labor costs indicates inflation will remain subdued, giving Federal Reserve policy makers room to keep pumping money into the economy to spur growth.

“Businesses are trying to squeeze as much as they can from their existing workforce,” Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pennsylvania, said before the report. “Given all the uncertainty, they’ll continue to limit hiring. Wage pressures are minimal.”

Economists’ forecasts for productivity ranged from unchanged to 3.5 percent. The government’s prior estimate was a 1.9 percent gain.

Unit labor costs, which are adjusted for efficiency gains, were revised down from a previously reported 0.1 percent drop, and compare with a projected 1 percent decrease, according to the Bloomberg survey median. They fell at a 0.5 percent pace in the second quarter, revised down from a previously reported 1.7 percent gain.

Yearly Change

Worker efficiency rose 1.7 percent over the past four quarters, the biggest year-over-year gain since the last three months of 2010. Labor costs climbed 0.1 percent, the smallest 12-month advance in almost two years.

Today’s figures reflected updated data on worker pay. Wages and salaries in the third quarter rose by $30.4 billion, less than the initially reported $43.3 billion, Commerce Department figures showed on Nov. 29. Wage gains in the prior period were also cut, to a $23.3 billion second-quarter gain that was about half the prior estimate of $55.2 billion.

The productivity report showed output rose at a 4.2 percent rate, following a 2.1 percent gain the prior quarter.

Hours worked rose at a 1.3 percent pace, while compensation for each hour worked climbed at a 0.9 percent annual pace.

Hourly Earnings

Adjusted for inflation, hourly earnings decreased at a 1.4 percent rate after increasing at a 0.6 percent pace.

Commerce Department data released last week showed gross domestic product climbed at a 2.7 percent annual rate from July through September after a 1.3 percent pace in the previous three months. A narrower trade deficit and gains in inventory overshadowed a smaller increase in consumer spending.

The GDP report also showed corporate profits climbed 3.5 percent in the third quarter from the previous three months, and rose 8.7 percent from the same period last year.

The so-called fiscal cliff, or more than $600 billion in tax increases and government spending cuts slated to take effect if lawmakers fail to act by year’s end, is one reason businesses are cautious about hiring and capital spending.

Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm ever to hit the U.S., will also trim growth this quarter and hurt employment. Reflecting the hit, payrolls rose by 87,000 in November after a 171,000 gain in October, according to the Bloomberg survey median ahead of a Labor Department report due Dec. 7. The jobless rate probably held at 7.9 percent, economists predicted.

Closing Branches

SunTrust Banks Inc., the eighth-largest U.S. commercial lender by deposits, said this week it is closing branches and trimming staff as it seeks to cut costs, according to Chief Executive Officer William Rogers.

The reductions may come at an “increased pace,” Rogers said Dec. 4 at an investor conference in New York sponsored by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The Atlanta-based lender expects to finish 2012 with 5 percent fewer employees from a year earlier, Rogers said.

Slowing business investment may also limit productivity gains. Corporate spending on equipment and software fell 2.7 percent last quarter, the first decline since the economy was in a recession in 2009, according to the GDP report on Nov. 29.

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