If you were examining whether American workers’ pay was finally beginning to rise at a rate consistent with a lengthy economic recovery and an apparently tight labor market, wouldn’t you focus on pay adjusted for inflation – which gauges whether these workers are keeping up with living costs? And wouldn’t you focus more on trends in the private sector (where wages, salaries, and benefits are set mainly by market forces, and therefore say something meaningful about the economy’s fundamentals) than in the public sector (where they’re set by government fiat)?
The alarm and enthusiasm (depending on your perspective) with which last week’s Labor Department figures on employment costs were greeted makes clear that both these best practices of economic analysis were widely ignored.
As the Department reported, the Employment Cost Index (ECI) – the compensation measure that includes all forms of pay and benefits – rose 2.71 percent on year in the first quarter of this year for “civilian workers.” That category includes the public sector, and was indeed the strongest such increase since 2008.
The numbers were even better in private industry: a 2.81 percent yearly gain. That’s also the best since 2008 (the third quarter’s 2.84 percent).
Adjust for inflation, though – that is, see the extent to which workers are staying ahead of living costs, not to mention the extent to which they are leading overall price rises – and the story looks very different.
According to the price-adjusted ECI issued by the Labor Department, during the first quarter of this year, compensation for civilian workers increased by 0.38 percent year-on-year. That’s actually lower than the annual increase for the previous quarter (0.48 percent). In fact, on a sequential (quarter-to-quarter) basis, the real ECI fell (by 0.29 percent).
That annual gain was indeed better than that for the first quarter of 2017 – when there was no increase in the inflation-adjusted ECI at all. But it wasn’t as good at the 0.87 percent improvement from the first quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016. And it wasn’t even close to the 2.59 percent rise registered between the previous first quarters. So let’s recognize that, during the first quarter of 2018, the real ECI did nothing special – at best.
The story is just as unexciting – and contrary to accelerating wage inflation claims – in the private sector. Its real ECI increased by 0.39 percent annually during the first quarter, and also fell (by 0.19 percent) sequentially.
Between the previous first quarters, the real ECI flat-lined, too, after advancing by 0.97 percent the year before and 2.70 percent the year before that.
Some day, American workers may actually experience another genuine acceleration in their real compensation, and thus a genuine increase in their living standards. But looking at the most revealing version of the Employment Cost Index makes painfully clear that that day still lies in the future.