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The big economic message sent by today’s official U.S. data on inflation-adjusted wages is highly concentrated in the so-called benchmark revisions – which adjust the results going back to 2015. And the big political message sent by these revisions is that President Trump’s economic record still suffers from a serious real wage problem – especially in the manufacturing sector, and especially compared with his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose supposed economic failures Mr. Trump has made a major campaign issue.

To be sure, the newest (and unrevised) January statistics weren’t great news for Trump-World, either. Total private sector pay in real terms inched up only 0.09 percent month-to-month, and the annual increase was a mere 0.64 percent. Between the previous Januarys, constant dollar private sector wages improved by a much faster 1.77 percent. (The Labor Department doesn’t track public sector wages, because their levels and growth are determined overwhelmingly by government decisions, and therefore supposedly say little about the state of the labor market or of the entire economy.)

The story for blue-collar workers (called “production and nonsupervisory workers” by the Labor Department and abbreviated here “N/S”) was only a little better. Their real wages flat-lined on month in January, but year-on-year they were up 0.75 percent – more strongly than overall private sector wages, and thereby in synch with numerous observations that pay at the lower end of the scale is rising faster than it is at the upper end.

In manufacturing, however, that picture is more mixed. Overall after-inflation manufacturing wages dipped by -0.09 percent sequentially in January, though they advanced by 0.74 percent year-on-year. That rise was better not only than that of total private sector workers, but than of its own performance the previous year – which saw zero increase in these wages.

Price-adjusted wages for manufacturing’s blue collar workforce, however, fared only negligibly better than for all manufacturing employees – flat-lining versus a small decline. And year-on-year they increased by less than a third the rate of pay for all manufacturing workers (0.23 percent) and much more slowly than the year before (1.37 percent).

The good news for Mr. Trump – the revisions put more of a shine on his job creation record over the last two years, as shown in the tables below. (Keep in mind that they only take the story through December, 2019 – because today’s January figures haven’t been revised yet.)


                                     Total private     N/S private     Total mfg      N/S mfg

Year-on-year, 2019:         +0.64%           +0.75%          +0.74%        +0.45%

Year-on-year, 2018:         +0.56%          +1.63%                0%          +1.14%


                                    Total private      N/S private     Total mfg      N/S mfg

Year-on-year, 2019:        +0.73%           +0.85%           +0.74%        +0.45%

Year-on-year, 2018:        +1.40%          +1.74%                 0%          +1.03%

Interestingly, though, the biggest changes came for all private sector workers. And the updates make the picture for blue-collar manufacturing workers slightly gloomier.

But the revisions still left the Obama years’ real wages performance looking better than those of the Trump years – a comparison that might be raised frequently during this election year. The 34-month periods have been chosen because that’s the amount of time Mr. Trump has been in office since his first full month in the White House (February, 2017. Further, the two time periods are right next to each other in the current business cycle.

The bottom line? The gap between the two administrations closed for all private sector workers and blue collar private sector workers. But it widened in the manufacturing sector.


                                  Total private      N/S private      Total mfg    N/S mfg

1st 34 Trump months:    +2.53%           +2.72%          +0.65%       +2.77%

last 34 Obama months: +3.50%           +3.97%          +3.05%       +2.97%


                                  Total private      N/S private      Total mfg    N/S mfg

1st 34 Trump months:    +2.71%            +3.05%          +0.65%      +2.65%

last 34 Obama months: +3.49%            +3.97%          +3.44%      +3.34%

And finally, the impact of the revisions on real wages trends during the current economic recovery, and on the previous two expansions:


                                                             Private    N/S private    Mfg      N/S mfg

1990s expansion (2Q 91-1Q 01):           n/a          +6.37%        n/a       +2.18%

bubble expansion (4Q 01-4Q 07)         : n/a          +0.35%        n/a       -2.77%

current expansion (2Q 09 – present): +6.30%      +6.79%    +1.59%   +3.01%


                                                              Private   N/S private    Mfg      N/S mfg

1990s expansion (2Q 91-1Q 01):            n/a          +6.51%       n/a        +1.81%

bubble expansion (4Q 01-4Q 07):           n/a         +0.35%        n/a        -2.77%

current expansion (2Q 09 – present):  +6.70%     +7.01% +   1.59%    +2.77%

The big takeaways, as I see them: The real wage performance of the current recovery looks somewhat better than previous thought – except for blue-collar manufacturing paychecks. And the widely admired 1990s expansion looks better for blue-collar private sector workers in toto but worse for their manufacturing counterparts.

Several recent polls show Americans to be unusually happy about the state of the economy and their own personal situations. (For the latest, see here.) These real wage figures indicate that it’s not yet entirely clear why.