Real wage gains and energy prices

February 14th, 2019 at 2:19 pm

Readers know I’m a huge booster of the impact of low unemployment rates on wage gains, especially for middle and low-wage workers. This dynamic is alive and well in current data and those of us on team Full Employment should elevate and tout it!

But, when it comes to real wage gains in “high frequency data,” which have been notable of late–as in, beating productivity growth–it’s important to also parse out the role of low energy prices.

The most recent CPI report showed a low topline inflation rate of 1.6 percent over the past 12 months (core CPI inflation rose 2.2 percent). The main factor pushing down on price growth was energy, down 5 percent, with gas prices (a sub-category of energy), down 10 percent.

In my recent write-ups of the jobs and other reports with wage info, I’ve mentioned the role of low energy prices in real wage growth, but here I’d like to formalize the analysis a bit to try to get a more accurate feel of the importance of this factor.

The first figure below shows recent trends in real hourly wages of mid-level workers (the production, non-sup series from the Establishment survey) deflated by both the topline CPI and CPI less energy. Of course, given volatile energy prices, wages deflated by the sans-energy deflator are smoother and have been gradually climbing since 2015, hitting 1.3 percent last month. The other series hit 1.8 percent, suggesting the difference–0.5 percent–is due to low energy prices.


Source: BLS

How important is this energy-price effect? Well, a year ago, real wage growth for this series was 0.4 percent, meaning real growth has accelerated by 1.4 percent. But back then, rising energy prices were pushing the other way, i.e., slightly crimping real wage growth. Thus, the change in the energy effect–the difference in difference between the values in the two series above over the past year–is 0.8 percent. That means that 56 percent of the acceleration in real wages over the past year is due to falling energy prices. (See note for details)

That’s a sizable impact, but look back at 2015 to see even bigger effects. In Jan, 2015, energy prices were 20 percent below their year-ago level. That month, real wages were up a strong 2.2 percent, and acceleration of 1.5 percent over their year-ago level. The energy price effect more than explains that change.

Such findings do not undercut the longer-term full employment/wage growth connection, as both nominal and real gains are correlated with tighter job markets (I’ve argued non-linearities are in play but others find that not to be the case). Note, again, the smooth acceleration in real wages since 2015 using the non-energy deflator in the figure above.

But they’re also a reminder of the important role of energy prices in near-term, real wage trends. For what it’s worth, which isn’t a lot, the general consensus is that oil prices, while not expected to fall further, should stay roughly around where they are going forward, as strong global supply meets middling demand. However, there are some noises about OPEC constraining supply, so stay tuned.

Data note: What I’m calling the “energy effect” here is: d_rw_c – d_rw_ne, where the first term is the 12 month log change in the real wage deflated by the top line CPI and the second term is the 12 month log change in the real wage deflated by the CPI less energy. The acceleration calculations first difference d_rw_c and d_rw_ne with their values one year ago and then difference those differences to get the change in the energy effect.

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