Serves me right! Although I keep warning about the risks of over-interpreting short-term trends in economic data, shortly after I started growing optimistic that wages in America were finally starting to rise at an historically acceptable rate, evidence came in last week suggesting that this development might be ending.
First came the release last Tuesday of the September figures on real hourly wages. For private sector workers overall, they fell on a monthly basis by 0.09 percent – their fourth sequential drop in the last six months, along with a flat performance in May. (This statistical series doesn’t track government workers’ wages because they’re set by politicians’ decisions, not market forces, and therefore reveal relatively little about the health of the labor market or the larger economy.)
At least as bad were the year-on-year numbers. Between September, 2015 and September, 2016, inflation-adjusted wages rose by only 1.04 percent – their slowest pace of the year. Further, this improvement was also much slower than the 2.42 percent advance recorded for the previous Septembers, although it beat the previous few annual increases. (The August and September results are still preliminary.)
As a result, since the current economic recovery began in the middle of 2009, real wages for the entire private sector are up only 3.78 percent – a pretty paltry rate over a more than seven-year stretch. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to compare this expansion’s wage performance with that of its predecessors, since these numbers only go back to 2006.
As has been the case lately, the wage picture was a little better for manufacturing. There, constant-dollar inflation-adjusted wages flat-lined in September for the second straight month. But on-month, they’d improved for most of the year.
The September year-on-year rise of 1.40 percent bested the rate both for the overall private sector and for industry in January (1.13 percent). But earlier in 2016, after-inflation manufacturing wages really took off. By June, they were surging at a 2.46 percent yearly pace. Inflation-adjusted manufacturing wages increased at a faster rate between the previous Septembers, also (by 2.39 percent). But for years before then, the sector’s hourly pay actually fell slightly when adjusted for prices. So even with that recent (and now concluded?) burst, real manufacturing wages during this recovery are up only 1.21 percent.
The second reason for wondering if any significant U.S. wage inflation might have already come and gone can be found in the data for inflation-adjusted weekly earnings that came out last Thursday. The latest figures are for the third quarter of this year, and they show that, since the first quarter, this pay is up just 0.29 percent. And this pace is slightly slower than those registered for the first three quarters of the previous few years.
Even worse, these earnings – which cover government workers, too, but don’t break out manufacturing – are up only 0.58 percent since the current recovery began.
Should American workers, and others who’d like to see much higher U.S. wages – be grateful that pay is still rising faster than early in the recovery? Or concerned about the latest slowdown? Given that overall economic growth is stalling out, too, you needn’t be a died-in-the-wool bear to feel pessimistic.