As I’m sure most of you know, the Federal Reserve this week decided to raise the short-term interest rate it controls directly by a quarter of a percentage point – to a range of between 0.50 percent to 0.75 percent. (This “Fed funds rate” is officially a target and is always expressed as a range.) And since the Fed funds rate can strongly influence borrowing costs throughout the economy, the hike – all else equal – is likeliest to slow growth in the short run at least. It’s the price that the central bank thinks the nation needs to pay to ward off inflation, and start returning rates to the historically normal levels widely thought to be essential for long-term economic health.
This key Fed decision (only the second rate hike in more than nine years), still leaves the funds rate near all-time lows. I won’t comment here on the wisdom of this move. But the timing makes me wonder if the central bankers had seen the latest American inflation-adjusted wage figures. For although Chair Janet Yellen has made clear her belief that the U.S. labor market keeps improving enough to warrant such tightening, the new real wage numbers look like they’re sending the opposite message.
Let’s start with the after-inflation wage figures that came out on Thursday. They showed that these wages in the private sector fell in November by 0.37 percent over October levels. That’s the worst monthly performance since the 0.39 percent decrease in February, 2013. Moreover, in October, real wages inched up by only 0.09 percent. Is the wheel turning? (The wage figures don’t include government workers because their compensation is set largely by politicians’ decisions, not market forces. Therefore, they reveal little about the underlying state of the economy.)
The year-on-year results don’t provide much encouragement, either. These wages’ 0.75 percent growth was the most sluggish since the 0.29 percent annual improvement in October, 2014. Between the previous Novembers, real wages advanced by 1.92 percent.
As a result, real wages since the current recovery began in mid-2009 are up only 3.59 percent. That’s over a more than seven-year stretch!
The picture if anything looks worse in manufacturing. There, November inflation-adjusted wages sank by 0.73 percent on month – the biggest decrease since the 0.76 percent falloff in August, 2012. In October, these wages increased by 0.28 percent on month.
The annual November data? Real manufacturing wages rose by just 0.93 percent year-on-year. That’s the slowest pace since the 0.38 percent in December, 2014. From November, 2014 to November, 2015, price-adjusted manufacturing wages increased by 1.90 percent.
And since the current recovery began, constant dollar manufacturing wages have risen only by 0.84 percent. That’s almost a rounding error.
Many economy bulls insist that the wage figures aren’t all that helpful, because they leave out non-wage benefits like health insurance coverage. The government keeps overall compensation data, too. But in inflation-adjusted form, they come out on a slightly less timely basis than the wage figures. All the same, we have them through the third quarter of this year, and they’re somewhat better – though not game changers.
Between the second quarter and third quarters, the Employment Cost Index (ECI) that captures these trends increased by 0.29 percent in real terms for the private sector. That’s a distinct improvement ove the 0.48 percent sequential decrease in the second quarter, but hardly torrid, since we’re talking about a three-month period.
Indeed, in the third quarter, the after-inflation ECI was up only 0.78 percent year-on-year – much less than the 1.89 percent rise the year before.
A little more impressive is the real ECI over the longer-term. During the current recovery, it’s increased by 3.40 percent after inflation. That’s better than the 2.36 percent increase during the previous recovery. But don’t forget – that expansion only last six years (from the end of 2001 to the end of 2007).
Better yet are the manufacturing ECI numbers. The last quarterly increase was also 0.29 percent – and it followed a second quarter drop almost identical to the private sector’s (0.49 percent). But year-on-year, the real manufacturing ECI was up faster than the overall private sector ECI (0.89 percent), though that, too, represented a big dropoff from the previous annual increase of 2.33 percent.
The real manufacturing ECI is also up a good deal more during this recovery than the overall private sector ECI – 4.72 percent. And that’s a nice improvement over the previous recovery’s 1.99 percent, even considering their different durations.
Chair Yellen and her Fed colleagues keep insisting that their interest rate decisions have depended on how the latest economic statistics have been looking. Which tells me that, last week, the central bankers must have been looking at data other than the real wage and compensation figures.