Thanks to the U.S. government’s new inflation data, we can cross one often fingered culprit off the list of developments being blamed for the recent turbulence in American, and therefore global, financial markets – wage inflation. For by a crucial indicator, real hourly pay in the United States is not only failing to lead prices upward – it’s been trailing overall inflation recently and indeed has been in recession lately by one commonsense standard.
Of course, market turmoil (like most big developments) springs from several, overlapping reasons. The first is one I discussed last Friday, and which I consider the most important: Investors fear that the Federal Reserve and other world central banks will start tightening monetary policy faster than expected, in order to prevent (more of) the kinds of reckless investments that tend to mushroom when credit is super cheap, and that can often trigger financial crises like the near global meltdown roughly a decade ago. (Happy Anniversary!)
If credit becomes more expensive, then economic growth and corporate profits will struggle to maintain their current rates of increase, and stocks will become less attractive investments, all else equal. In addition, the very increase in interest rates almost certain to result from such central bank “tightening” heightens the appeal of bonds and dims that of equities.
To complicate matters further, another engine of higher rates might be a combination of the great increase in federal budget deficits likely from the new tax cuts proposed by the Trump administration and passed by Congress, and the big-spending budget deal reached by the lawmakers and the President. The consequent budget gap will boost federal borrowing needs (and all else equal, push up the rates Washington will need to pay lenders for all this new debt) at a time when the U.S. central bank has started selling the ginormous amount of government bonds it’s been purchasing and holding since late 2008 (a practice called “quantitative easing) in order to halt the Great Recession and speed up recovery . This version of tightening – which also stems from financial stability concerns – will raise the supply of bonds even further.
The second reason for the turmoil is investor concern that rising inflation will spur central banks to raise rates regardless of the above financial stability concerns – because excessive inflation can produce its own economic disaster. And in fact, the proximate cause of the current bout of market instability seems to be those very inflation fears, and in particular, the possibility of wage inflation.
Higher compensation costs could deal their own blow to stock prices by reducing corporate profits; or by sending upward price pressures rippling throughout the entire economy (as companies tried to pass higher costs on to their customers either elsewhere in the business world or in consumer ranks); or through some combination of the two. (Interestingly, the chances seem pretty low that companies could absorb higher wages through greater efficiency, as productivity improvement has been very slow at best recently.)
So that’s why today’s widely anticipated (to put it mildly) U.S. government inflation data is so important. The inflation figures were somewhat “hotter” than most investors were predicting. But it couldn’t be clearer that wage inflation has nothing to do with these higher prices.
The numbers that most observers – whether investors or not – are looking at are the year-on-year numbers, and they do seem to signal some wage inflation. From January, 2017 to last month, the Labor Department’s headline reading showed a 2.14 percent rise in prices nationwide, and a 1.85 percent increase in “core” prices (which stripped out from the headline food and energy prices because they’re considered so volatile in the short-term that they can generate readings regarded as somewhat misleading).
During that same year, wages adjusted for inflation for the overall private sector were up 0.75 percent – which means they rose faster than overall prices. Moreover, between previous Januarys, real wages actually declined fractionally (by 0.09 percent). So in principle, investors (and other economy watchers) have reasons to be nervous about wage inflation.
But a more recent time frame tells a very different story. For since last May, private sector wages have been down on net. Although the cumulative decline is only 0.19 percent, this means that on a technical basis, real wages are in recession. (I feel justified in using this term because when economists talk about growth, a decline for two consecutive quarters is defined as a recession. So a six-month cumulative downturn seems close enough.) Indeed, more accurately, real wages are still in recession, since this development was apparent last month, too.
And the latest month-to-month figures indicate that real wage pressure is weakening, not strengthening. From December to January alone, they dropped by 0.19 percent, after rising by that amount from November to December.
The picture looks even grimmer when you go back to the start of the current economic recovery – in mid-2009. Since then, real private sector wages have risen by only 4.07 percent. And that’s over more than eight years!
But private sector real wages are practically torrid when they’re compared with inflation-adjusted pay in manufacturing. Such compensation has been in technical recession for two full years, as it’s fallen by 0.09 percent since January, 2016. On a monthly basis, after-inflation manufacturing pay plummeted by 0.46 percent in January, its worst such performance since August’s 0.64 percent tumble. At least the December figure was revised up – though only from a 0.09 percent dip to a 0.09 percent increase.
Over the current economic recovery’s eight-plus years, real manufacturing wages have risen by a mere 0.37 percent – less than a tenth as fast as those of the private sector overall.
Yet although inflation – and especially wage inflation – doesn’t seem to warrant a quicker pace of Federal Reserve interest rate hikes (or even the current, “gradual” pace), a case can still be made for tightening on a financial stability basis. And those massive federal deficits, which will need to be funded by equally massive increases in bond supplies, seem here to stay for many years. So as has been the case for so long, assuming these moves do slow U.S. economic growth, American workers appear certain to pay many of the costs for disastrous policy mistakes they never made.