Although it’s usually hard to muster much sympathy for the governors of the Federal Reserve, today might be an exception.
On the one hand, this afternoon their Open Market Committee is scheduled to announce its latest decision on interest rates, and it’s given many indications that it’s going to again make the cost of borrowing a little more expensive. That probably means, all else equal, that economic activity in the United States (including growth and hiring) will slow down, at least in the short term.
On the other hand, the U.S. government reported a slew of economic data this morning indicating that the economy is getting weaker – which would make at least the timing of even a modest rate hike awkward. Among them were inflation-adjusted wage figures (for May) that once more reveal a significant slowdown in American workers’ real take-home pay.
For the private sector overall (the Labor Department, which calculates these figures, doesn’t report inflation-adjusted wages for public sector workers, because their government-set pay tells us little about the state of the economy), the news wasn’t bad at all on a month-to-month basis. Constant-dollar wages rose 0.28 percent from their April levels – after having gone exactly nowhere the month before.
But the year-on-year results – which smooth out inevitable random-ish monthly fluctuations – were again nothing less than discouraging. From last May until this May, this price-adjusted pay increased by just 0.56 percent. That was indeed their strongest annual improvement since last December’s 0.75 percent. But it was much less than half the after-inflation pay advance between the previous Mays (1.42 percent), much less that of May, 2014-May, 2015 (2.33 percent).
So largely as a result, during the current economic recovery – which is nearly eight years old – real private sector wages are up only 4.26 percent.
But according to the Labor Department, private workers overall have been enjoying salad days compared with manufacturing workers. The latter’s real wages fell on month in May by 0.28 percent. It’s true that this decline followed an upwardly revised 0.55 percent sequential April increase that was the sector’s best since August, 2015’s 0.66 percent. But the May monthly decline was the sector’s worst since last November’s 0.64 percent slide.
Manufacturing’s year-on-year real wage results are scarcely better. In May, they flat-lined — their worst such performance since September, 2014’s 0.29 percent annual dip. The two previous May annual real wage increases”? Between 2015 and 2016, 2.45 percent, and between 2014 and 2015, 1.53 percent.
And during the nearly eight years since the economy began growing once again, real manufacturing wages are up 1.31 percent.
These glum wage data notwithstanding, there still could be good reasons for the Fed to announce another rate hike today. As RealityChek readers know, it’s entirely possible that recent years of stimulus from the central bank has mainly stolen potential growth from the future by promoting artificial growth. Similarly, as the Fed itself has acknowledged lately, monetary policies that have made credit so cheap – and indeed, practically free for blue-chip borrowers – for so long can encourage the kind of crackpot investing and financial instability that could trigger another global crisis.
If the Fed emphasizes these concerns in its (usually brief) statement accompanying the interest rate announcement, or in the more detailed Open Market Committee meeting minutes it publishes later, it will deserve the nation’s gratitude for straight talk – however overdue it might be. If, however, the central bank insists that it’s raising rates mainly because the economy is looking encouraging, it will be increasingly deserve the label of mindless cheerleader.