American productivity out paces the world

Sebastaian Mallaby:

Newspapers bring us the dark stories about American business. The Enron trial serves up tales of lies and looting. The General Motors restructuring dramatizes the death of traditional U.S. manufacturing. Commentators from left and right agree that a growing swath of the economy, from accounting services to non-emergency health care, may one day move offshore. And yet something is going dramatically right inside American corporations. Despite all the nostalgia for the era when GM dominated the world's car industry, the heyday of American business may actually be now.

The dawn of this heyday came in 1995. In the two preceding decades, the productivity of American workers had grown more slowly than that of Japanese and European competitors. But in the decade since 1995, U.S. labor productivity growth has outstripped foreign rivals'. Meanwhile U.S. firms' return on equity -- that is, the efficiency with which they manage the capital entrusted to them -- has pulled away from that of Japan, France and Germany, according to data provided by Standard & Poor's Compustat.

Other measures tell a similar story. Up until the 1990s, management books were crammed with Japanese buzzwords, and the early Clinton administration was in awe of Germany's apprenticeship system. But today the United States provides most of the business role models, from Starbucks to Procter & Gamble, from Apple to Cisco. The (British) Financial Times publishes an annual list of the world's most respected companies. In 2004 and again in 2005, no fewer than 12 of the top 15 slots were occupied by American firms.

Or consider the database on management quality constructed by Nick Bloom and John Van Reenen of Stanford University and the London School of Economics. This duo organized a survey of 732 medium-sized American and European companies and measured their management procedures against benchmarks of best practice. The result: American firms, including the subsidiaries of American firms in Europe, are simply better managed than European rivals. In fact, superior American management accounts for more than half of the productivity gap between American and European firms.

Whence this American superiority? The first answer is that competition is fiercer. The United States has relatively few trade and regulatory barriers for firms to hide behind, so bad companies either shape up quickly or go bust. In retailing, for example, firms such as Wal-Mart and Target have been able to spread their super-efficient logistics systems all across the country -- at least until lately, when a perverse anti-Wal-Mart campaign has sprung up. In Europe and Japan, by contrast, a web of zoning laws entangles efficient retailers, sheltering unproductive companies that overcharge consumers.

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There is much more.

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