The Buzz

All markets and investing news all the time

We are working too hard

December 6, 2012: 12:55 PM ET
Odds are that you feel like this guy too. Big gains in productivity are a sign that workers are stretched too thin. Companies need to start hiring more.

Odds are you feel like this guy. Big productivity gains are a sign workers are stretched too thin. Companies must start hiring more.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.

November's jobs report is probably not going to be good. There will likely be a lot of noise in the data tied to Superstorm Sandy and the closing of Twinkie-maker Hostess Brands.

But some economists see hope for better jobs gains ahead, despite fiscal cliff fears. Why? In a nutshell, those of us who have jobs are reaching our breaking point. That can't continue for much longer.

The government reported some interesting figures yesterday that were largely overlooked by the market. Productivity in the third quarter was revised to a jump of nearly 3%. At the same time, unit labor costs fell nearly 2%.

In other words, we are working a lot harder ... but not seeing the rewards for it in our paychecks. Corporate America seems to be taking their Neil Young too literally. It's better to burn out than fade away. My my, hey hey indeed.

Bob Baur, chief global economist for Principal Global Investors in Des Moines, Iowa, noted that U.S. workers may be reaching the point where they are stretched too thin.

Baur cited figures that showed the U.S. is already one of the most productive nations among the world's largest markets. During the past ten years, the growth in gross domestic product per worker in the U.S. has outpaced growth in Britain, Canada, Australia, Japan and Germany as well as emerging market Brazil.

What's that mean? At some point, U.S. corporations need to recognize that they can't keep trying to do more with less, especially if consumers continue to shrug off fiscal cliff fears and spend.

Related: Expecting a fat year-end bonus? Don't get your hopes up

Baur said that so far, consumers appear to be much less worried about the health of the economy than businesses. Retail sales are expected to be strong during the holidays and individuals also seem to be growing more confident that the worst is finally over in the housing market.

So if Congress and the White House don't hurtle us over the fiscal cliff ... or if the impact of going over said cliff is not as dramatic as some fear ... businesses will have no choice but to start investing more so they can truly capitalize on higher demand.

"There is a wedge between business and consumer sentiment. Corporate investment is being delayed but consumers don't seem to care as much that their taxes might go up a bit. Companies should start using more of their cash to hire," Baur said.

Related: Workers' Christmas wish: Fire the boss

Of course, this is not to suggest that U.S. corporations should now go on a drunken hiring binge. Some companies, particularly banks, are still shedding some of the fat they put on after bulking up before the Great Recession.

Citigroup (C) announced on Wednesday that it was laying off more than 11,000 workers. Other big banks may need to announce more job cuts. Heck, as Fortune's Stephen Gandel points out, Citi's layoffs may not have gone far enough.

Steve Blitz, chief economist with ITG in New York, added that it may also be unreasonable to expect that unemployment rates (now around 8%) will ever go back to as low as they were before the financial crisis of 2008.

"Technology improves productivity. That is not going to go away," he said.

But the financial services sector may be an anomaly. Blitz agreed that companies can't ignore the worker burnout element, particularly in lower-paying sectors like retail and other unionized industries.

My CNNMoney colleague Emily Jane Fox just wrote about how recent strikes at Wal-Mart (WMT), McDonald's (MCD) and ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach could be the beginning of a trend.

And if companies aren't going to start hiring more to lessen the burden on the overworked, the least they can do is pay better wages and improve job conditions.

"When you look at the increased output and drop in wages, companies should be adding more workers down the line. Employment must start to increase. There are only so many shifts people can work," Blitz said.

Eventually, businesses will have to figure this out ... if for no other reason than the usual suspect. Greed.

The U.S. is still the envy of many other nations because of our productivity and prosperity. But that can quickly change if businesses are content to merely preserve short-term profit margins instead of thinking about the future.

"Companies have wrung out as much productivity as they can by cutting costs and laying off people. To keep up with other economies around the world that are growing more rapidly, Corporate America does have to invest more in people," said Mike Binger, senior portfolio manager for Gradient Investments in Minneapolis.

"Earnings have been good. But for that to continue going forward, profits are going to have to come from investments in growth," Binger added.

Join the Conversation
Fear & Greed
Sponsored by
About This Author
Paul Lamonica
Paul R. La Monica
Assistant Managing Editor, CNNMoney

Paul R. La Monica is an assistant managing editor at CNNMoney. He is the author of the site's daily column, The Buzz, and also tweets throughout the day about the markets and economy @LaMonicaBuzz. La Monica also oversees the site's economic, markets and technology coverage.

To view my watchlist

Not a member yet?

Sign up now for a free account
Stupid Stock Move of the Day
#StupidStock Moves of the Day! $CAT $JOY up 4%? China rate cut may eventually help. But it's also reflection of weaker Chinese economy now.
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 242 other followers