What Happened to Rising Wages?

Popular Economics Weekly

Everything should point to higher wages and salaries ahead for employees with a 4.3 percent unemployment rate and record corporate profits, but corporate profits go mainly to their executives and owners (and their stockholders) these days. The result is stagnant wages and household incomes.

image

Graph: Econoday

“Real”, or inflation adjusted average hourly earnings slipped 2 tenths in July to a year-on-year 0.7 percent. This reading has been under the 1 percent line since October last year. The monthly reading for this measure did finally show some life in the prior week’s employment report with an unadjusted 0.3 percent gain, but it will take a continued run of strength to level out the 2-year trend line which remains in a deep downslope, says Econoday.

It’s as if corporate bosses no longer are interested in maximizing their growth, which is the normal way to maximize profits. They have been successful in boosting profits, but mainly through financial engineering—that is, stock buybacks paid with borrowed money, or mergers and acquisitions that consolidate markets into fewer players.

This increases their monopoly powers to boost profits and resist employee calls for higher wages. It has helped to keep the stock market humming, but not the economic growth that should accompany such profits.

Wages in the United States increased 2.95 percent in May of 2017 over the same month in the previous year. But a better idea of healthy wage growth in the United States is a historical average of 6.26 percent from 1960 until 2017, reaching an all-time high of 13.77 percent in January of 1979 and a record low of -5.77 percent in March of 2009, according to Trading Economics.

image

Graph: Trading Economics

This is what normal wage growth should look like, if workers were earning a living wage, and inflation was rising at a normal rate. The inflation rate in the United States averaged 3.28 percent from 1914 until 2017, and was 14 percent in 1980. Wages since then have been suppressed in the name of suppressing inflation, as employees’ bargaining power has been curtailed.

That’s why the national minimum wage is still $7.25 per hour, last raised in 2009, though some cities and states are beginning to raise it to $15 per hour, which is what economists calculate is the minimum living wage for a family of four. And that is just enough to cover what a household has to pay for housing, gas, food, clothing, and other everyday items.

But it’s an uphill battle when business interests rule the markets with little push back or bargaining power held by 80 percent of the workforce that are wage earners, and we wonder why so many refuse to return to work. So we shouldn’t wonder why U.S. labor productivity, which ultimately sets our standard of living, has remained so low of late. It increased at an average annual 2.5 percent from 1948-2007, but just 1.2 percent from 2010-14.

It’s also the reason the U.S. have the highest income inequality in the developed world. The U.S. ranks 106th of the 149 countries in income inequality as ranked by the CIA’s World Factbook with a Gini inequality index of developing countries like Peru and Cameroon. 

Harlan Green © 2017

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
This entry was posted in Consumers, Economy, Macro Economics, Politics, Weekly Financial News and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s