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Last week more evidence came in concerning claims that America is undergoing or verging on a new round of dangerous wage inflation (or any wage inflation), and the government has just provided a special bonus! The good people at the Labor Department, which tracks these trends, recently informed me that it not only keeps figures on overall compensation (the Employment Cost Index, or ECI), but that it also adjusts these numbers for inflation. So it’s possible to get a better fix on whether pay is keeping up with or trailing price changes in the rest of the economy – and also on how U.S. compensation nowadays has been performing in historical perspective.

First, the pre-inflation results from the latest ECI – which covers the second quarter of this year. For all private sector workers (whose pay is set largely by market forces, not government decisions), wages, salaries, and benefits combined increased by 2.35 percent over the second quarter of 2015. That’s better than the 1.79 percent year-on-year rise for the first quarter, and than the 1.90 percent improvement registered between the second quarters of 2014 and 2015. In fact, it’s the best year-on-year gain during the current recovery.

The trouble is, the current recovery is still a low bar. Annual increases dwarfing that 2.35 percent were common beforehand, and going back to 2001 (when the ECI was created). In fact, during the seven years of expansion covered by these latest ECI data, employment costs have risen by 15.16 percent total. That’s still well behind the 21.71 percent total increase during the previous recovery – which lasted only six years, and which is not widely viewed as a Golden Age for employees.  

Further, we shouldn’t forget about the impact of the latest burst of state and local level minimum wage hikes. However overdue you think they are or aren’t, it’s important to recognize that they have nothing to do with the underlying strength or weakness of labor markets.

When you adjust for inflation, however, a more complicated story emerges. On the one hand, over the last two or so years, there’s definitely been some overall compensation acceleration. After going nowhere for most of the current recovery, the real ECI rose by 1.50 percent year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2014, and by 2.70 percent in the first quarter of 2015 (when, to be sure, many of these minimum wage hikes kicked in).

Since then, although the annual rates of increase have slowed markedly, they’re still much better than during the recovery’s early phase. The big question they raise going forward is whether they can stay above one percent, especially since the economy’s growth is slowing markedly.

Over a longer period of time, the current recovery’s real ECI performance looks better historically speaking, but not by a wide margin. During its seven data years, overall compensation is up a total of 3.10 percent. The figure for the previous (six-year) expansion? 2.36 percent.

Moreover, during the 1980s expansion, which lasted slightly longer than seven years, the real ECI advanced by 4.25 percent. During the 1990s recovery, which ran just under a decade, the real ECI was up 7.61 percent. In other words, their annual average gains were both considerably better than those of the current expansion.  (The data for these previous expansions is found in a separate Labor Department report.)

So here’s one way to think about wage inflation: If your working memories or knowledge of the U.S. economy don’t go back past Y2K, you might legitimately be concerned. If you’re aware of the nation before this century, not nearly so much.

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