If you’re one of the American workers who’s been happy with the current economic recovery, you might have already seen peak pay gains. If you haven’t been satisfied, get ready for greater disappointment. And whatever category you fall into, you’d better hope that new U.S. government data on overall compensation paid by American employers is just a blip. Ditto that for the Federal Reserve, which is set to announce its latest decision on interest rates later today, and which seems convinced that the American labor market is healthy enough to withstand a series of hikes back toward historically normal levels.
Last week, the Labor Department issued its latest quarterly report on how much business shells out in terms of both wages, salaries, and benefits. The results in the main release looked pretty good, but they’re not adjusted for inflation – which means that they don’t tell the full story about whether or not compensation is keeping up with the cost of living. Luckily, Labor released the inflation-adjusted figures, too, and they make clear that whatever real compensation progress workers might have been recently been making could be in danger.
According to these constant-dollar Employment Cost Index (ECI) figures, real pay for all private sector workers was flat year-on-year for the quarter ending in March. (I don’t usually examine pay data that include government workers because their compensation is set overwhelmingly by political decisions, not market forces, and therefore don’t say much about the underlying strength of the labor market or the broader economy.)
That annual result was the worst since the quarter ending in June, 2014 – when after-inflation compensation also flatlined on an annual basis. By comparison, the real ECI between that first quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016 rose by 0.97 percent.
Looked at quarter-to-quarter, the real ECI for private sector workers fell by 0.10 percent. The previous sequential change was a 0.29 percent improvement. Indeed, the latest numbers broke a two-quarter string of gains.
From a longer-range perspective, however, the current recovery still stacks up pretty well for private sector workers (although the data only go back to mid-2001). Since it began, in mid-2009, their total compensation is up by 3.60 percent. During the previous (shorter) expansion – which ran from late 2001 through late 2007, total inflation-adjusted compensation rose by only 2.36 percent.
The new real ECI results reveal similar trends for American manufacturing workers. The first quarter’s year-on-year 0.20 percent drop was the worst such result since an identical decrease in the final quarter of 2012. And the previous first quarter annual change was a 1.49 percent rise.
Sequentially, real manufacturing compensation also fell during the first quarter – by 0.29 percent. And as with overall private sector compensation, that was the first such decline in three quarters.
Interestingly, in terms of real total compensation, the current recovery has been a winner for manufacturing workers to an even greater extent than for all private sector workers. Combined constant dollar employer costs for wages, salaries, and benefits have risen by 4.72 percent – compared with a 1.99 percent advance during the previous recovery. (RealityChek regulars will note that these results contrast strikingly with those for wages alone, where manufacturing has been a major laggard. One reason is surely manufacturing’s relatively high unionization rate – which typically results in better benefits won and kept.)
If the Federal Reserve decides today to raise the federal funds rate it controls directly, or even if it simply stays determined to remains on a tightening path, it would signal its confidence that the American labor market remains on the mend following devastating losses during the last recession. Any doubts the central bank voices about its current strategy might indicate that it’s genuinely worried about the new ECI statistics – and that U.S. workers should be, too.