Archive for the ‘Median Earnings’ Category

Phillips Curve Still Alive for Compensation?

Greg Hannsgen | May 13, 2014


On reading a recent post by Ed Dolan at Economonitor with some evidence of the lack of a strong Phillips relationship for consumer-price inflation in US data, it occurred to me to try a measure of total compensation per hour with recent data. The wage relationship estimated over all available quarters, using averaged monthly observations for the civilian unemployment rate, is shown above, with a scatter plot and an estimated regression line. Like the relationship estimated by Dolan, the regression line above suffers from a rather loose fit (constant: 6.87; slope coefficient: -.29; R-squared = .02). A complete explanation of inflation is complicated and of course also involves other costs, including raw materials such as fuel. The latter costs are subject of course to “cost-push”-type inflation at times, as are wages. Exchange rates of course affect these costs.

A time series graph below displays both series over the entire sample period, 1948q1 to 2014q1. As some have observed, the exceedingly high unemployment rates of the post-financial-crisis era (blue line) have resulted in very weak or negative compensation growth rates (red line). The latter are not adjusted for inflation in the figures, since we are focusing on nominal data in this post.  The downward trend in nominal wage growth in the right side of the figure (red line) helps to explain recent declines in the so-called wage share, which measures the fraction of national income going to labor costs. (However, see this New York Times article for some evidence that falling unemployment is beginning to bring some inflation-adjusted wage growth to parts of the US.)

wage-Phillips time series

By the way, if inflation were to become a large problem (and it seems well-contained now), non-recessionary methods exist to try to alleviate it. Even where the Phillips-curve relationship is strong, the human costs of using it to combat inflation are usually very high, given the existence of alternative policies that could perhaps be given a try in the US.


Can We Afford the Usual?

Greg Hannsgen | July 19, 2012

With yesterday’s quarterly BLS data release on “usual weekly earnings” out, I have once again constructed some “alternative” measures of real wages, based on price indexes for food commodities at the wholesale level. The commodity-based indexes are depicted in the figure above with lines in various colors. Compared to the more typical measure of real, or inflation-adjusted, earnings, which is seen in black, the food-commodity wages may be of interest in different contexts: for consumers who spend relatively large portions of their budgets on food, for example, or to those following the debate over the unfortunate SNAP (food stamp) cuts in the farm bills recently passed by the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee (see this earlier post). Inflation at the wholesale level is sometimes a harbinger of similar trends in prices paid by consumers at retail stores, so the series shown above may be most helpful as indicators of possible future trends in the standard of living.  Along these lines, the Financial Times reports that prices for food commodities will be higher this decade than last, according to two major forecasters.  The cited reasons for the expected rise in food-commodity prices include an expected upward trend in the price of oil, climate-related crop failures, and demand from emerging economies.

It is best, given that the data are not seasonally adjusted, to look at changes compared to the second quarter in another year. Also, since the commodity-price indexes are rather volatile, changes over fairly long periods are most informative. The second-quarter “real” wage results, relative to the second quarter of 2010, are: in terms of a broad BLS price index, -1.5 percent; fresh and dry vegetables, +10.6 percent; fresh and dry vegetables, +24.0 percent; grains, -38.6 percent; slaughter livestock, -16.0 percent; slaughter poultry, -3.2 percent; raw milk, -4.6 percent; chicken eggs, -14.5 percent; and hay, hayseeds, and oilseeds, -33.1 percent.  The results for the past year have been a bit better, with five of the eight commodity-wages rising, along with the BLS’s broad real measure, which has risen .3 percent over its second quarter 2011 level.

Update, July 20: I forgot to point out that the run-up in grain prices that I mentioned in Spring and Fall 2011 posts appears to have ended (see purple line) in the data shown in the figure; meanwhile however, certain grain prices are in fact rising rapidly again. As a matter of fact, the Financial Times reported again on commodity prices today, this time on its front page. In a report noting that soybean and corn prices reached record highs in commodities markets yesterday, it observes that the world is facing a new “food crisis,” owing largely to the drought currently affecting crop yields in the United States.


How much food will a week’s earnings buy?

Greg Hannsgen | April 6, 2011

(Click graph to expand.)

Recent months have seen double-digit increases in energy prices and the prices of many important agricultural commodities. Because of the recent inflation in various raw materials, fuels, and foods, many ordinary Americans have been finding it increasingly difficult to afford basic necessities. The figure above shows just how severe this trend has been. (You will probably need to click on the image to make it larger.)

The lines for various commodity groups begin on the left side of the figure at a level of zero percent for the March 2006 observation. Each subsequent point on a given line shows the total percentage change since March 2006 in the amount of one type of farm product that can be purchased at the wholesale level with the average weekly paycheck. The dark blue line that appears nearly flat shows average real (inflation-adjusted) weekly earnings as reported by the government. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) uses the consumer price index (CPI-U) to deflate this series. The line shows that the purchasing power of wages for a typical job has increased by only about 2.2 percent over the five-year period shown in the figure. Moreover, ground has been lost since early last fall, when wages were as high as 3.3 percent above March 2006 levels.

The other lines in the figure refer to average nominal weekly earnings deflated by various wholesale food price indexes. Each line represents a different type of agricultural commodity. Since wholesale commodity prices tend to rise and fall a great deal more than most consumer prices, the lines representing earnings in terms of food commodities appear much more volatile than the blue line representing overall real earnings. I have tried to include most of the foods that are crucial for U.S. retail purchasers, resulting in the use of 6 of the 8 main BLS commodity indexes that fall under the broad “farm products” category. One can think of the resulting real wages conceptually as the living standards of workers who for some reason use their entire paychecks to buy only one type of farm commodity.

All 6 lines show losses of purchasing power since the start of the time period covered by the graph, reflected in observations at the right side of the figure that lie below zero percent. One example is grain purchasers, who have fared worst among farm-product buyers, according to my chart, suffering a 61.6 percent loss in the grain equivalent of a typical private-sector paycheck since March 2006. Many observers believe that the current commodity price run-up has resulted from an upturn in economic activity that began roughly at the official end of the last recession, while others blame adverse weather trends due to global climate change. Both of these explanations are likely to be of some merit.

Recently, Bank of America research mentioned on the Business Insider website today found that increasing food and energy prices will be high enough this month to wipe out the positive effect on personal income of the payroll-tax withholding reduction that began in January for most U.S. workers. B of A estimates that the tax cut has raised take-home pay by about $8 billion per month, but this year’s food and energy price increases are now costing consumers about the same amount. The macroeconomic effect of this loss of discretionary income could be very important.

Many anti-stimulus economists and politicians have raised the bugaboo that recent upward trends in many commodity prices are the result of “excessive money creation,” a thesis that is effectively challenged by this month’s  San Francisco Fed Economic Letter, which uses a promising methodology to gauge the commodity-price impacts of a number of large-scale Fed securities purchases. (Warning: This is a fairly long and technical article for a noneconomist.) In addition, the S.F. Fed’s website also prominently features this interesting graphic, which shows that commodity price increases are likely to hit the lowest income groups hardest, since, for example, food purchases use up about 40 percent of the lowest income quintile’s pretax income, while household utilities account for roughly 20 percent and gasoline perhaps 10 percent of their income. Considering the enormous numbers of low-income households, it is would be very unfortunate if economists overemphasized the somewhat less relevant fact that food and energy costs now amount to a smaller fraction of total U.S. income than they did during the oil and food price shocks of the 1970s.

Yesterday, corn futures prices at one of the main Chicago commodity exchanges hit a ten-year high. This is a frightening trend indeed.

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