UPDATE (1:15 pm EST): Productivity fell at the end of last year at the fastest pace in two years -- about 2 percent. Analysts say companies are hiring more and therefore don't have to lean so hard on their current workers.
Economists had expected a drop in productivity of anywhere from 1 percent to 2 percent to cap off a year in which productivity increased -- but at a mediocre pace.
Patrick Newport, U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, predicted productivity to rise by 1 percent for all of 2012. That compares to 0.7 percent in 2011. Productivity rose more strongly immediately after the recession, in 2009 and 2010. The 50-year average of productivity rise since World War II is approximately 2 percent per year.
These days, you can see improved productivity everywhere -- including at this reporter’s local latte bar, Jola Café, in Portland, Oregon.
As the barista calls out for "a hemp latte and a chai" to his co-worker at the espresso machine, he touches out the order on an iPad mounted on the counter. Then he swipes the customer’s credit card. Tia Ribary, a business consultant here for a morning meeting, signs with her finger. There’s no need print, tear, sign, or store the receipt.
“They email it to me,” says Ribary. “It makes it easier to send the receipt to my bookkeeper. I don’t have to scan it, I just forward the email.”
Using smart machines to do more work with less human labor -- that productivity engine keeps humming along at a steady pace in the U.S.
But economist Patrick Newport says overall productivity gains have slowed in the past two years. And here’s why: Companies massively downsized during the recession, then made the workers who were left on the job do more. Productivity initially rose as the recovery took hold, but only temporarily.
“Companies were working their existing workforce to the bone and getting more work out of them,” says Newport. “But that strategy no longer works, because workers are tired. And on top of that, we’re seeing an increase in hiring.”
Companies are finally adding new workers to spell their overworked legacy employees. But economic growth has all but stalled: we’re not making a lot more widgets, or lattes. So productivity is falling right now. What's more, new employees require training from more experienced workers. Newport says the time spent on training and ramp-up also supresses productivity gains, at least in the short term.
The Chinese New Year starts this weekend. It's the biggest celebration in China's calendar and a bit like Thanksgiving in the U.S., the entire country shuts down for a long weekend of food, fireworks and family time. Millions of single people have to endure endless questioning from their family as to why they're not yet hitched.
In a basement canteen of an office tower in downtown Beijing, I meet some of them. Groups of young women huddled over large bowls of noodles who look depressed when I ask them about the impending Chinese New Year holiday. Like Ding Na who is almost 30-years-old and comes from China's northeast.
"I'm under lots of pressure," she tells me. "My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I'm still single. When they call me, I'm scared to pick up the phone."
It's a common story across China where twenty-somethings, especially young women, face a strict societal deadline to marry by their early thirties. In the offices of Baihe.com, one of China's biggest dating agencies, I meet consultant Zhou Xiaopeng. She describes to me just how unbearable it can be for single women at this time of year by asking me to picture a scene where people sit around a table:
"Chinese people love to get together for dinner" she explains. "On New Years Eve, everybody is sitting in pairs, your brother with sister-in-law, your sister with brother-in-law, and so on. If you're the only one left behind, you can imagine the pressure and frustration."
But while many will face another year of uncomfortable questions, others have come up with a quick-fix solution. Singletons are going online to hire fake partners to take home for the holidays.
I did a quick search on Taobao, China's most popular online shopping website, and when I typed in 'renting a fake boyfriend for Chinese new year' dozens of ads popped up. There was one from a man offering his services for 52 RMB an hour, about $8 an hour, to spend time with a single women's relatives. For 500 RMB, he would spend the night if he gets his own bed and for 600 RMB, he would be willing to sleep on the couch. But lower down in the ad he makes it very clear that sex is not an option.
I was intrigued to find out what sorts of people were willing to hire themselves out, so I phoned one of the men offering to work as a fake boyfriend over the Chinese New Year. I spoke to Li Le, a 24 year old man businessman from China's central Hebei province. He sounded a little embarrassed and told me it was the first year he had attempted to work as a fake boyfriend. But he insists he is not doing it for the money.
"It's an exciting thing to do," he told me. "I might find people who share my interests and it would make both of us happy."
Thirty women have contacted Li so far, but he says it's tough to find someone who trusts him enough to invite him home for Chinese New Year.
President Obama is meeting with House Democrats today to rally support for several items on his agenda, including immigration reform.
Lawmakers are still trying to work through some disagreements on the issue, such as whether a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants should be contingent on tighter border security. One industry that is closely following the negotiations is the U.S. agriculture sector.
"The agriculture industry has been a big proponent of immigration reform," says Stephen Keppel, economics editor for Univsion News. According to Keppel, 75 percent of all farm workers in America were born in Mexico and 53 percent of those are undocumented.
If Congress takes the path of mass deportations, it would be a crushing blow to the farming industry and the economy at large, Keppel adds:
"There are some estimates that it would cost maybe $285 billion to deport all undocumented immigrants. It could cost the economy $2.6 trillion over the next 10 years," he says.
This final note today, in which we learn once again that timing truly is everything.
A German man -- Phllip Lupke, by name -- has won a 10,000 Euro gift card from Apple. Seems he's the guy who bought the 25 billionth song on iTunes. Twenty-five billion times 99 cents or so is a pretty good business model.
It's also created something of a problem for Apple. It's been sued by the hedge fund manager David Einhorn, who's upset with how long its taking the company to give some of the $45 billion in cash it's sitting on back to investors.