What’s UP with wages?

July 12th, 2016 at 10:16 am
Source: Fed Up campaign

Source: Fed Up campaign

I stumbled on three, count ‘em, pieces on wage growth in the papers this AM.

–Catherine Rampell on recent wage growth and how it might help the incumbent party keep the White House.

Starbucks says the tight job market is leading them to increase compensation.

–JPMorgan Chase’s Chairman Jamie Dimon is giving his employees a raise.

Check out this paragraph from the piece on Starbucks (my bold):

Starbucks said Monday that it is preparing to give pay increases of at least 5 percent to all of its U.S. store workers and managers, a move aimed at shoring up the coffee giant’s ability to attract and retain employees in a steadily improving labor market.

I know it’s common sense, but this is precisely the nub of the argument I’ve been making for years, and with extensive evidence. In an economy like ours, with very low union representation, tight labor markets are the working person’s best, if not only, friend when it comes to bargaining clout.

Yes, education matters, of course. There’s long been a very steep gradient of wage levels by educational attainment. But even some college-educated workers (e.g., younger grads) have experienced flat real wage trends. NY Fed data show that the median real annual earnings for recent college grads hasn’t gone up much since the 1990s, and even the 75th percentile of earnings is now just back to where it was 15 years ago. Elise Gould et al get the same finding for hourly pay of young grads.

And just yesterday I focused on the importance of very low unemployment for low-wage black workers.

So, all this is truly good news, but let’s keep it in perspective. First, there’s no evidence of wage-push inflation, either in real life or in expectations. Are such pressures building? Perhaps, but as I and others have shown, it’s actually hard to link wage pressures to prices in recent years. Inflation remains “well-anchored” even in tighter job markets, so we shouldn’t assume anything near full wage/price pass-through.

Second, a lot of what’s driving real wage gains is uniquely low inflation. That’s not taking anything away from all the above positive news, and no question, another driving factor has been faster hourly wage growth as a function of the tighter job market. But it does mean that as inflation normalizes—e.g., as oil prices regain their footing or shelter prices continue to mount in parts of the country—weekly paychecks won’t go as far, i.e., unless hourly wages or weekly hours accelerate to offset the higher prices.

Here’s what I mean. The figure below decomposes real weekly earnings into its component parts over 2012-14 and 2014-16. The dot shows the percent growth in real weekly earnings in each period, and it shows a nice, welcome acceleration, from 1% to 3.3% (weekly paychecks are up $30 a week in real $’s over the past couple of years). About a quarter of that acceleration comes from faster hourly wage growth, but the lion’s share comes from much slower price growth, which slowed from 3.4% in the first bar to 1.1% in the second one.

So, yeah, there’s some wage growth out there, both nominal and real, as you’d expect given that we’re working our way towards full employment. But we’re not there yet, and many working families have a lot of ground to make up. If today’s stories stick and multiply, this progress should continue, which would be a very good thing. Remember, it took seven years of expansion to get here. Let’s hang out here for awhile!

Source: BLS

Source: BLS


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3 comments in reply to "What’s UP with wages?"

  1. Smith says:

    This doesn’t pass the smell test, because the next likely President (Clinton) already is running on $12/hour, New York and California are phasing in $15/hour, and Starbucks is paying well less than those amounts for most of it’s workers and will be even after a 5% raise.

    Dimon, as another comment elsewhere noted, couldn’t write about wages without changing of the definition of the word “minimum”. It means least. Instead he claims to be raising the minimum in a range of $12.00 to $16.50. Translating that back into English, he’s raising the minimum to $12. Orwellian, and deceptive, the Times editors should not allowed this misuse of language. The media are enablers of the 1%.

    How tight is the job market when workforce participation fell the last 12 months, and as many as 500,000 (a half million) dropped out unrelated to demographics of an aging population.

    To repeat, in 1994, the workforce participation rate was 66%, the population over 65 years of age was 12.5% and most surprisingly, and the unemployment rate was 6%. Today, participation is 61%, over 65 population 15%, and unemployment 5%.

    Another thing worth mentioning is Dimon in passing remark promoting the myth that education is the answer to getting ahead and higher wages. Unfortunately there is already a surplus of over educated high skills workers, who take jobs from low skills works, in occupations that don’t require college degrees. This also accounts for flat wages for college level occupations since the year 2000 and higher levels of unemployment for those less educated. Calls for infrastructure spending don’t address this problem, and neither does free public college.

    • Smith says:

      I’m aware of my errors, grammatical and otherwise, in the above comment, for lack of adequate proof reading and corrections. This in no way lets the Times editors or Dimon off the hook.

  2. Smith says:

    Now that I looked up data for a later post about wages of the college-educated, as illustrated in this graph http://www.epi.org/files/charts/img/4701.png , I think the statement seems off

    “Yes, education matters, of course. There’s long been a very steep gradient of wage levels by educational attainment. But even some college-educated workers (e.g., younger grads) have experienced flat real wage trends.”

    The data is showing no steep gradient since 2000, but rather flat real wage trends, not merely for some college-educated workers (e.g. younger grads), but all college-educated workers (ages 16 – 64, though very few 16 year olds have finished college, uses to compare with high school graph)

    Here’s the high school degree chart showing small decline vs. flat lining college degree.

    Here’s the whole report emphasizing the diminished prospects of recent graduates, high school and college.

    The point I’ve been emphasizing is the degree to which (pun intended) a college education doesn’t foster rising wages. The stagnation is masked by nominal raises that match inflation and normal salary increase as careers progress that reward experience. Neither of those two effects count towards rising wage levels, but they may go very far towards assuaging workers unaware they haven’t gotten a raise in 15 years, despite steady if slower productivity gains.