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Economic Insights

Data signaling nascent U.S. wage inflation could figure into the timing of interest-rate hikes by the U.S. Federal Reserve, even if growth in the broader economy remains slow.

 

The debate over Federal Reserve rate hikes seems to tip with each new economic statistic. Disappointing gross domestic product (GDP) figures for the first quarter caused consensus opinion to look for a delay in any rate hike, and possibly a rethink by the Fed’s Open Market Committee (FOMC). Strong employment figures and a tick down in the nation’s official unemployment rate had the opposite effect. The Fed surely does take note of each new bit of data, but just as surely it bases policy on a more fundamental picture of economic conditions. Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen tries to bring that point home during each testimony, stressing the Fed’s desire to “normalize” rate levels.1 There also still is discussion—at the Fed, if not on Wall Street—of the need to adjust policy before any inflationary pressure emerges. On this last point, Fed policymakers surely factor wage trends into their calculations. And here there is a suggestion—though just a suggestion—of the beginnings of those inflationary pressures against which the Fed wants to guard the economy. 

Certainly, recent Labor Department employment cost measures must have caught the attention of policymakers, especially those sensitive to inflation potential. For the three-month period ended March (the most recent period for which complete data are available), total compensation for all civilian workers rose at a 2.8% annual rate, up from 2.0% during the last three months of 2014. As Table 1 shows, the rolling 12-month figures on labor compensation also suggest the beginnings of some upward pressure, if only the beginnings. This time last year, total compensation had only increased 1.8% over the prior 12 months. The measure has accelerated steadily since, to reach the 2.6% gain recorded for the 12 months ended this past March. It is perhaps more a sign of pressure that, as the table shows, compensation in the private economy has accelerated faster than the overall economy and that the acceleration in wages and salaries has outpaced that in benefits.2     

Those who would dismiss the notion of any such pressure would likely do so in two ways. One would argue that productivity growth can blunt any ultimate inflationary consequence. And, indeed, except during the temporarily depressed first quarter, when output per hour fell at a 1.9% annual rate, productivity has grown enough to restrain any advance in labor costs per unit of production, the so-called unit labor costs. These have remained below 2.0%, which, after all, is the Fed’s informal inflation target. But since productivity growth has followed a decelerating trend—dropping from a 1.2% rate of advance in 2013 to a 0.5% advance in 2014, and at the same slow pace over the 12-month period ended in this year’s first quarter—this means of discounting the acceleration in compensation may be losing its force.3

The second argument handy to dismiss inflationary concerns would call attention to the outsized number of discouraged and part-time workers in the economy. Their competition for full-time work, it would argue, could well put a lid on compensation growth and, consequently, the inflationary pressure that might ordinarily result from it. There is no doubt something to this argument, but a look at the industry detail on wages, salaries, and benefits suggests that this seeming labor slack could have less impact than it otherwise might. The occupations that are seeing the greatest compensation gains are also those that demand greater levels of training and education. The last Labor Department report for the three months through March indicates the greatest wage and salary gains in professional and business services, sales of professional products, technical services, and aircraft manufacturing. These are not occupations in which today’s discouraged and part-time workers would likely compete. Occupations where these frustrated workers do compete, and so can hold back compensation gains, are already trending relatively slowly. In this recent period, mining, for instance, elementary and secondary teaching, installation and repair, administrative support, and transportation services show the slowest compensation gains.4

None of this is to suggest that the economy is on the brink of an inflationary breakout. Nor does it suggest that the Fed has missed the boat on inflation protection. What it does say is that the pressures on the Fed are much less one-dimensional than the consensus chatter in the financial community seems to suggest, that from the Fed’s broader perspective, matters might offer ample reason for modest interest rate hikes, even with little sign of an acceleration in the pace of the overall economic recovery.

 

Table 1. Compensation Gains
                                                    12 Months Ended

 

March
2014

June
2014

Sept.
2014

Dec.
2014

March
2015

Total Compensation

1.8%

2.0%

2.2%

2.2%

2.6%

Wages and Salaries

1.6

1.8

2.1

2.1

2.6

Benefits

2.1

2.5

2.4

2.6

2.7

Private Economy
Compensation

1.7

2.0

2.3

2.3

2.8

Wages and Salaries

1.7

1.9

2.3

2.2

2.8

Benefits

1.8

2.4

2.3

2.5

2.6

 

Source: Department of Labor.

 

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