Poor pay rises around the world leave economists puzzled

by Bloomberg16 Mar 2017

From York, UK to Montreal, and Osaka to Seattle, it’s a pretty good time to be looking for a job as a member of the labour force in many developed countries.

Unemployment rates in Group of 7 nations such as Canada, the US, Britain, Japan, and Germany are nearing or even slightly below what officials describe as a maxed-out jobs market.

But wage gains worldwide have been only creeping along. For developed economies, that means the powerful cycle of higher compensation fuelling stronger demand and then business investment and, eventually, a little more pricing power, has proven elusive.

“It is a mystery,” said Torsten Slok, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank AG. “We’re barely seeing any wage growth.”

Solving this puzzle matters, since it casts uncertainty over the health of the world’s labour markets and the direction of monetary policy. Central banks, which are supposed to tune their policy rates to inflation, could end up tightening too fast too soon if they conclude employment gains mean inflation is right around the corner. Or if they focus on the weak wage gains, they may end up leaving rates too low for too long, fuelling asset bubbles.

Rate Decisions

US Federal Reserve officials conclude their meeting Wednesday and markets are pricing in a quarter-point rate hike as part of a gradual normalization of rates from crisis lows. The Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank release decisions on Thursday.

Until now, policy makers have blamed the paucity of wage gains on existing economic slack. But that explanation is starting to look weak.

In the US, the number of workers unwillingly stuck in part-time jobs is back at 2008 lows. In Japan, where policy makers want higher inflation, labour shortages in service industries such as lodging and elderly care aren’t resulting in higher pay. In Canada, the jobless rate has dropped to a post-recession low, but wages have been growing at the slowest pace in more than a decade and aren’t keeping up with inflation.

Even in the UK, where pay gains picked up last year, there’s been a recent slowdown – which may partly be due to uncertainty since the nation voted to leave the European Union – and evidence points to real wage gains shrinking as inflation accelerates.

In Germany, where the economy is growing at a rate above the long-term trend, the lack of robust wage gains may be linked to the long-standing restraint of labour unions, mindful of the export-oriented country’s hyper-competitive attitude to global trade. Germany’s Federal Statistics Office reported in February that inflation-adjusted wages grew by 1.8%  in 2016, the slowest pace in three years. All the more puzzling since Germany is running with the lowest unemployment rate since reunification.

And as Germany is the euro area’s largest economy, it’s a matter of concern for European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, who called wages a “key point” in the assessment of the economy last week. In the central bank’s pursuit of just under 2% inflation over the medium term, wage growth has to return.

It’s “the linchpin of a self-sustained increase in inflation,” Draghi said on March 9. “That is the key variable that we should look at.”

Low Productivity

And it’s not just the G-7. In an interview with Bloomberg News Monday in Sydney, Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison said stagnant wage growth is his nation’s biggest economic problem.

“Wage earnings of Australians have been flat,” Morrison said. “It’s been a while since they’ve had a good pay rise.”

A deeper reason for slow pay raises may be the malaise in global productivity, defined as the amount of output produced in a period of work. Productivity gains can come from a variety of places and is that magical mix of mechanization, technology, human ingenuity, and constant innovation in the way services are delivered and goods are produced.

In the U.S., year-over-year productivity rose 1% in 2016, compared with 2.4% in 2007, the last year of expansion before the financial crisis.

“I hate to say it but we may be in a new normal for wage growth,” said Omair Sharif, senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York. “Until you get productivity moving higher, it may be hard to get nominal wage growth above 3 percent.”

When productivity is rising, companies can push more goods and services out the door at a lower cost. Some of the increasing profits may accrue to labour in the best of cases, lifting compensation. Low productivity means that companies have to hire more people to get the job done as GDP expands. That helps underpin demand as more consumers are getting a paycheck. But compensation isn’t rising much.

US payrolls increased by 235,00 jobs last month and the unemployment rate stood at 4.7%, near the 4.8% Fed estimate of a rate that represents maximum use of labour resources. Average hourly earnings rose 2.8% in nominal terms for the 12-month period, similar to gains over the past year. The consumer price index rose 2.5% in January, so in real terms wage increases are low.

Japanese Hotels

The same explanation may apply to Japan, where industries experiencing labour shortages are also areas of low productivity. Hotels, restaurants and retirement homes all need more staff but are struggling to find new efficiencies.

In manufacturing, robotics holds scope for productivity but this won’t necessarily translate into higher wages for blue-collar workers, whose jobs can also be moved overseas.

Another possible explanation is that the Great Recession left a deep scar on both labour and industry, and set expectations for compensation on a lower trajectory.

“Inflation expectations have become exceedingly well-anchored, and, related to that, wage demands have been very tempered,” said Nathan Sheets, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “It is a legacy of the low-inflation, disinflationary, and even deflationary environment we have had for the past couple of years.”

Labour Unions

It’s very much the case in Japan, where workers and labour unions are more focused on preserving jobs than pursuing pay gains. While the unemployment rate is down to just 3%, a level last seen in the mid 1990s, average monthly wages in Japan adjusted for inflation fell for four straight years through 2015. Data from the labour ministry points to an increase of just 0.7% last year.

Central bankers could be pleased with some aspects of the current Goldilocks environment. Unemployment is low and inflation is low at a time of growing employment.

However, current conditions also belie low expectations about the future, and Japan is an example of how difficult it can be to shock an economy into a more dynamic regime.

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