, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The newest report on a key official measure of worker compensation has just shown that, during today’s high inflation era, American workers could be both significantly fueling the soaring prices that are dominating the U.S. economy and getting shafted by them.

This measure – called the Employment Cost Index – is tracked by the Department of Labor, and is watched closely by the Federal Reserve (the government’s chief inflation-fighting agency) for two major reasons. First, it includes not just wages, but salaries and non-cash benefits. Second, unlike the Labor Department’s average wage figures, it takes into account what economists call compositional effects.

In other words, the those wage figures report hourly and weekly pay for specific sectors of the economy, but they don’t say anything about labor costs for businesses for the same jobs over time. The ECI tries to achieve this aim by factoring in the way that the makeup of employment between industries can change, and the way that the makeup of jobs within industries can change (e.g., from a majority of lower wage occupations to one of higher wage occupations).

In his press conference last Wednesday following the Federal Reserve’s announcement of a second straight big increase in the interest rate it controls directly, Chair Jerome Powell mentioned that the ECI report coming out on Friday would greatly influence the central banks’ decision on how much more tightening of credit conditions would be needed to slow the economy enough to cool inflation acceptably.

That’s because, as he has explained previously, the supposedly superior insights on worker pay provided by the ECI enable the Fed to figure out whether a major inflation engine has started to rev up – employee compensation rising faster than worker productivity. Industries (or entire economies) in this situation are denied the option of absorbing wage increases by achieving greater efficiencies in their operations Therefore, they face more pressure to maintain earnings and profits by passing pay increases onto their customers, their customers face more pressure to keep up with living costs by pushing for pay hikes themselves, and what economists term a classic and hard-to-break wage-price spiral takes off.

The new ECI results per se looked alarming enough from this perspective. They showed that between the second quarter of 2021 and the second quarter of 2022, total employee compensation for the private sector ose by 5.5 percent. That’s the fastest pace since this data series began in 2001. Moreover, this record represented the third straight all-time high. (RealityChek regulars know that private sector numbers are the most important gauge, since its pay and other indicators are mainly driven by market forces, unlike the statistics for government workers, where the indicators largely reflect politicians’ decisions.)

Sadly, though, according to the Fed’s favorite measure of consumer inflation (the Commerce Department’s Personal Consumption Expenditures price index), living costs increased by 6.45 percent. So workers fell further behind the eight ball.

Perhaps worst of all, however, productivity growth is in the toilet. We won’t get the initial second quarter figures until September 1, but during the first quarter, for non-farm businesses (the most closely followed measure for the private sector), it fell year-on-year by 0.6 percent – the worst such performance since the fourth quarter of 1993.

Nor was this figure a one-off for the current high inflation period. From the time consumer prices began their recent speed up (April, 2021) through the first quarter of this year, labor productivity is off by 1.36 percent, the ECI is up 3.95 percent, and PCE inflation has risen by 4.65 percent. So a strong case can be made that workers, businesses, and the economy as a whole are in the worst of all possible worlds.

Whenever productivity is the subject, it’s important to note that it’s the economic performance measure in which economists probably have the least confidence. And even if it’s accurate, don’t jump to blame workers for sloughing off. Maybe management is doing a lousy job of improving their productivity. Alternatively, maybe managers simply haven’t figured out how to do so in the midst of so many unusual challenges posed by the pandemic and its aftermath – chiefly the stop-go nature of the economy’s early aftermath, and the resulting turbulence that, along with the Ukraine war and China’s Zero Covid policy, is still roiling and stressing supply chains.

Whatever’s wrong, though, unless a course correction comes soon, it looks like the odds of the economy sinking into prolonged stagflation – roaring inflation and weak economic growth – are going up. And ultimately, that matters more to the American future than whether some form of recession is already here, or around the corner.