When the U.S. economy emerged from the recession in June 2009, productivity was rising at a fast clip. Companies had spent the downturn cutting jobs and were lean and efficient. Productivity—output per hour worked—jumped 5.5 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier as workers did more with less. But as the recovery has chugged on, productivity growth has stalled, averaging less than 1 percent a year since 2011. Workers were actually less efficient in the first quarter of 2014, producing fewer goods and services per hour than they had during the previous quarter.
Retail space isn't what it used to be. More people are browsing and buying online. Stores can get products faster from manufacturers, so they don't need as much space to warehouse inventory. Small businesses are thus moving to smaller storefronts to lower costs.
A week after a train loaded with crude oil from North Dakota exploded in downtown Lynchburg, Va., dumping 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River, the Department of Transportation announced two moves to try to keep this from happening so frequently. It's doubtful that either will make much of a difference in preventing what's become a major safety hazard in the U.S.
The Japanese government has long banned most weapons exports. That policy helped buttress Japan's pacifism, but it also hindered the growth of the country's defense industry. Because it couldn't sell parts overseas, Japanese defense companies missed out on chances to develop fighter jets, tanks and other weaponry with the U.S. That's changing.
Manufacturing employment is falling almost everywhere, including in China. The phenomenon is driven by technology, and there's reason to think developing countries are going to follow a different path to wealth than the U.S. did—one that involves a lot more jobs in the services sector.
Just as KFC's China sales began to improve, the spread of bird flu is once again threatening the chicken restaurant's recovery, this time ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, typically a busy period for the chain. The New Year begins on Friday, Jan. 31.
Since the end of World War II and the birth of the modern global economy, business leaders have come to accept an iron law: International trade always expands faster than economic growth. Between the late 1940s and 2013, that assumption held true. Trade grew roughly twice as fast as the world economy annually, as fresh markets opened up, governments signed free-trade pacts, new industries and consumers emerged, and technological advances made international trade cheaper and faster. Now this iron law may be crumbling.
Why the pessimism about the economy? Last Monday, we learned that U.S. factories are expanding at their fastest pace in more than two years, capping the manufacturing industry's best six-month period since the recession ended in June 2009.