Here’s a question that reporters really should ask Janet Yellen this afternoon during her farewell press conference as Federal Reserve chair, and that journos and all Americans should be asking the Trump administration and Members of Congress at every opportunity: If the economy is so solid, and the job market is so historically tight, how come it’s now skirting a technical real wage recession, and why is the paycheck slump for manufacturing now nearly two years old?
My term “technical recession” doesn’t exactly match the standard version of an economic downturn – two straight quarters of contracting output. But it’s pretty darned close: at least two straight quarters over which some indicator (in this case, inflation-adjusted wages) has dropped cumulatively.
The real wage data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveal that this is exactly the situation for the entire private sector. (These real wage data don’t include public sector workers since their paychecks are mainly determined by politicians’ decisions, not by market forces.) Since June – five data months ago – constant dollar hourly pay is down 0.56 percent. Indeed, this measure of compensation has now decreased for four straight months. One more and we’re in technical recession territory.
In manufacturing, where job-creation has perked up this year, the situation is even worse. Real wages in industry are down on net since March, 2016. They’re not down by much (0.09 percent). But it’s the longest such stretch since the January, 2012 to September, 2014 period.
On a monthly basis, after-inflation private sector wages dropped by 0.19 percent in November. Year-on-year, they’ve risen by the same meager amount. Between the previous Novembers, real private sector wages increased by 0.94 percent.
Since the beginning of the current economic recovery, more than eight years ago, this pay has advanced by only 3.98 percent.
In manufacturing, after-inflation hourly pay tumbled by 0.55 percent on month in November, and is 0.37 percent lower on a year-on-year basis. From November, 2016 to November, 2017, constant dollar manufacturing wages increased by 1.21 percent.
And their total improvement since the mid-2009 beginning of the current recovery? 0.65 percent.
It’s true that wages aren’t the economy’s only measure of compensation. But they’re clearly a major measure. Their weakness – which is not only chronic, now, but accelerating – is a clear sign that, contrary to the Fed’s judgment, there’s still plenty of slack in U.S. labor markets and that, contrary to the President’s claims, the nation’s employment picture is anything but Great Again.