Tuesday, September 6, 2011

WSJ: Albert Edwards Has Another Reason You Should Worry About Profits

Last week the BLS revised the unit labor cost rise in Q2 up from 2.2% to 3.3% quarter over quarter. US non-farm business unit labour costs are now rising by 2% year over year. That is very bad news for profits. Bad news for equities. And because the pace of ULC is a key driver of inflation (upwards in this instance), it is bad news for an increasingly criticised and divided Fed.

Since labour costs overwhelmingly dominate corporate costs, trends in productivity are crucial to the pace of growth of company profits. If unit labour cost growth is below unit price inflation, then unit margins are expanding. This, together with unit sales growth (and the less important unit non-labour costs), arithmetically determine profit growth.

Typically, productivity growth tends to ebb and flow with the economic cycle – i.e. productivity tends to rise as the economy accelerates and vice versa. Therefore unit labour costs tend to fall sharply early in economic recoveries (as has happened recently), but typically begin to rise and eventually exceed output price inflation later in the cycle.

When unit labour costs start to rise quicker than output prices, as is the case now, this tends to exert an upward pressure on inflation as companies try to maintain margins. The pass-through of this upward pressure on inflation is largely determined by the pace of the cycle. If demand is robust, inflation will rise. If demand is weak and companies cannot pass on cost increases, margins and profits get crushed. That is the tipping point we have now reached.


Business Insider also wrote about Edwards' latest piece HERE.