This morning’s real wages figures from the Labor Department (for December) contained an unusually diverse grab bag of results, and with a presidential election year now officially underway, perhaps the most newsworthy are those that could well affect the race for the White House – and which on balance seem unfavorable to President Trump.
In addition, though, some other results undermine a major belief about how after-inflation paychecks have fared during the current (record length) economic recovery versus its two immediate predecessors.
Not that the news was all bad for the President and his supporters (and anyone else rooting for a stronger American economy). Yes, overall, inflation-adjusted wages in the private sector dipped sequentially for the second time in three months – by 0.09 percent. (The Labor Department doesn’t track real public sector wages because their trends say more about politicians’ decisions than about economic fundamentals).
But if these preliminary figures hold tightly enough, the 2019 year-on-year improvement of 0.64 percent will be higher than 2018’s 0.56 percent increase.
At the same time, wage growth decelerated throughout 2019 – from 0.37 percent between January and June to 0.27 percent between June and December.
Real manufacturing wages fared better, continuing a year-long trend. Month-to-month in December they climbed by 0.18 percent, and their year-on-year increase and improvement were stronger than that of the private sector, too. The latest annual rise was 0.74 percent – up from the previous year’s flatline. And throughout 2019, they increased at the same 0.37 percent rates during both halves of the year.
But the results were less encouraging for non-supervisory workers in both the private sector overall and in manufacturing. By certain measures, paychecks for the lowest paid U.S. workers have been improving faster than those for the workforce overall. And using the Labor Department’s methodology of distinguishing supervisory from non-supervisory workers provides some support for that finding.
For example, on an annual basis, in 2019 and 2018, inflation-adjusted wages increased faster for both non-supervisory manufacturing and blue-collar workers than those wages for all workers, as shown here:
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%
Yet the table also shows 2018-19 deceleration for both groups.
Moreover, on month in December, real wages for these blue-collar workers performed worse in absolute terms than for all private sector and manufacturing workers – actually falling by 0.21 percent for the former (the biggest decline since October, 2018’s 0.22 percent drop) and increasing by just 0.11 percent for the latter.
And deceleration continued through the year. Between the first and second halves of 2019, constant dollar wages increases for the private sector fell from 0.53 percent to 0.21 percent, and from 0.23 percent to 0.22 percent for manufacturing.
The impact of Boeing’s safety-related woes on aircraft manufacturing per se and on the company’s huge domestic supply chain could explain some of these disappointing figures for industry. But so could the uncertainties created either by Mr. Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies, or by their ragged implementation, or both. Further, as the numbers indicate, real wage weakness isn’t simply a manufacturing problem.
Perhaps most important for Mr. Trump, real wages’ performance during the first 34 months of his term in office (starting with February, 2017, his first full month), have lagged their increases during the most comparable period in Barack Obama’s presidency – his last 34 months in office (ending in January, 2017). Here are the results:
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%
Finally, the new real wages data show that when it comes to this gauge, the current economic recovery stacks up unexpectedly well with the two previous expansions where a reasonable amount of statistics exist – for non-supervisory workers. The comparison is especially striking between the current expansion and the 1990s expansion – which is widely viewed as an excellent one for both the economy and America’s employees.
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%
Unfortunately for President Trump and Trump-ers, though, this longer-term picture isn’t likely to impress voters as much as more recent developments. And when it comes to workers’ after-inflation wages, he clearly has more work to do.