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This morning the federal government released one of the more unusual takes on Americans’ pay that we regularly see – the latest quarterly report on “Employer Costs for Employee Compensation (ECEC).” It’s unusual because it measures not only wages and salaries, but non-wage benefits. And that’s something of a two-edged sword.

On the one hand, the ECEC series’ comprehensiveness provides a fuller picture of compensation trends in the U.S. labor market than the wage figures alone (which come out monthly, and therefore are somewhat more current). On the other, because it focuses (as per the name) on compensation from the employer’s end, it includes a great deal of info on practices that never translate into money in their workers’ pockets. After all, few if any workers realize the full value of their benefits packages.

The ECEC series presents analysts with another problem: the current-dollar data only go back to 2004. So it’s not possible to compare the economy’s performance on this front over similar phases of the various recent business cycles.

Even so, three important conclusions can be drawn from the latest data – which takes the story up to full-year 2018. First, they confirm what the wage statistics reveal about manufacturing being a compensation laggard during the current economic recovery compared with the rest of the private sector (I exclude government employee data from this post because compensation decisions in the public sector are set mainly by politicians’ decisions, as opposed to market forces. As a result, they say relatively little about the fundamental state of the economy.)

Second, they show that for both private sector (PS) workers as a whole and manufacturing workers, wages and salaries have been growing more slowly than benefits. And third, they show that increases in all these forms of compensation for both private sector and manufacturing workers slowed somewhat during the second year of the Trump administration, and that the improvement for manufacturing workers essentially halted the year before – and in some cases, shifted into reverse.

Here are figures for compensation cost changes for the duration of the current expansion – which began in mid-2009:

Total compensation for all PS workers:                     +24.18 percent

Total compensation for manufacturing workers:       +21.97 percent

Wages and salaries for all PS workers:                      +23.00 percent

Wages and salaries for manufacturing workers:        +20.59 percent

Total benefits for all PS workers:                              +27.18 percent

Total benefits for manufacturing workers:                +24.56 percent

If you do a little more math, you’ll see that private sector compensation costs generally advanced at a rate 10.06 percent faster than total compensation in manufacturing; that private sector wages and salaries costs went up 11.70 percent faster than their manufacturing counterparts; and that benefits costs rose 10.67 percent faster.

Now let’s look at the annual changes in each variety of compensation costs since 2009. The figures show changes between the fourth quarters of each year, and if you look at the 2016-17 data and the 2017-18 data, you see the growth slowdowns and actual backsliding in manufacturing mentioned above.

            PS comp   mfg comp   PS wages  mfg wages  PS bens   mfg benefits

09-10:   +1.20%    +0.94%      +1.18%     +0.14%     +1.38%     +2.52%

10-11:   +2.95%    +2.20%      +2.55%     +1.60%     +3.95%     +3.37%

11-12:   +1.05%    +1.79%      +0.89%    + 2.13%     +1.42%     +1.15%

12-13:   +2.63%    +4.83%     +2.17%     +4.08%      +3.74%     +6.28%

13-14:   +5.70%    +4.52%     +4.62%     +4.36%      +8.23%     +4.84%

14-15:    +1.21%   +4.82%     +1.93%     +4.30%       -0.31%     +5.79%

15-16/;   +3.34%   +2.16%     +3.12%     +2.56%      +3.76%     +1.41%

16-17:    +2.93%    -0.89%     +2.80%      -0.74%      +3.22%     -1.77%

17-18:    +0.98%    +0.28%    +1.62%     +0.63%      -0.49%      -0.44%

Another noteworthy characteristic displayed by these numbers: They can be very volatile. For optimists, this choppiness may be a sign that manufacturing compensation will turn another corner, and that overall private sector compensation will rise at an accelerating rate. They could also explain the relatively weak manufacturing results as a sign that, as has been widely claimed and that I’ve discussed previously, that industry is attracting job-seekers whose qualifications are so threadbare that they can’t command premium wages and benefits even in the currently tight national labor market.

Pessimists can counter by contending that recovery-era compensation increases have surely peaked, either since the expansion will surely peter out soon simply because it’s already lasted so long, or because the boost received from the President Trump’s tax cuts has run its course, or both.

I’ll stay agnostic for now. But I feel pretty confident that if you look at the ECEC figures that start coming out in mid-2020, you’ll have a decent idea of who America’s next president will be.

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