As Greedflation Starts to Fade, Wageflation Creeps In
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As Greedflation Starts to Fade, Wageflation Creeps In

Softer demand, more supply and rising labor costs all take the air out of profit margins

By GREG IP
Mon, Jul 10, 2023 8:43amGrey Clock 4 min

When inflation took off in 2021 in the U.S., so did corporate profits, leading to accusations of “greedflation” and calls in some corners for price controls. This year, Europe is going through the same debate amid soaring food prices.

Judging by recent developments, inflation driven by corporations flexing their power to jack up prices more than costs—greedflation, as some called it—is on its way out. Pretax margins, which widened sharply in 2021 and 2022, were roughly back to pre pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2023, according to revised government data released last week. Margins in six of the S&P 500’s 11 sectors were lower in the second quarter than four years earlier, according to FactSet.

Narrowing profit margins, though, doesn’t necessarily mean an end to inflation. Wages are now growing faster than prices. While that doesn’t provoke the same outrage as soaring profits, it’s just as problematic for getting inflation down.

The circumstances of 2021 and 2022 made for a seller’s paradise. As the economy reopened, newly vaccinated consumers rushed to spend pent-up savings and stimulus cash. That demand collided with supply held down by pandemic disruptions and the inability of meeting so much demand with existing capacity.

The result: pretax margins shot from 15.6% in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 17.9% in the second quarter of 2021. That’s based on the Commerce Department’s measure of total value added by corporate businesses. This measure separates total costs into labor, profits, and non labour costs such as depreciation, interest and excise taxes, while excluding inputs, such as energy.

In the year through the second quarter of 2021, those companies’ prices rose 4.3%. At the same time, the cost of labour per unit of output fell 2.3%, because though wages were rising in that time, output per worker (productivity) was rising faster. Profit per unit of output rose a whopping 40%.

Greedflation is a catchy phrase, but not of much analytical value. Businesses always set prices to maximise profits. Raising them too much risks competitors ramping up supply to take market share.

But in 2021 and most of 2022 many companies couldn’t expand supply because of shortages of materials, labour or transport capacity. In the past when demand for vehicles rose, manufacturers effortlessly boosted output. This time, a shortage of semiconductors curtailed production and manufacturers responded to strong demand by slashing incentives and raising prices. General Motors sold fewer vehicles in both 2021 and 2022 than in 2019 but in both years made about 50% more profit. Companies weren’t the only beneficiaries: so was anyone with a used car to sell.

While greed is timeless, companies conceivably may have more power to translate greed into prices because of declining competition. The Biden administration, for example, blamed soaring meat prices in part on consolidation among meatpackers. But that wouldn’t have translated into such high prices without so much demand from locked-down consumers and the industry enduring production interruptions and labour shortages due to Covid-19, drought, avian flu and shrunken herds.

In recent quarters demand has softened. Adjusted for inflation, consumer spending was flat in three of the past four months. Tyson Foods lost money in the second quarter as soft demand pulled down prices for pork and beef while feed and labour expenses rose.

Supply, meanwhile, seems to be improving, at least for goods. In a report this week, economists at Goldman Sachs said global shipments of automotive semiconductor chips and U.S. auto production in the past few months are finally above pre pandemic levels. As a result, automotive inventories and incentives are both on the rise. In May the average new car buyer paid $410 below sticker price, compared with $637 above a year earlier, according to Cox Automotive.

Demand for services is holding up better than for goods, and services supply is still constrained, in particular by labour shortages. One reason air travel is so expensive is that airline capacity this year is about 14% below pre pandemic trend levels, Delta Air Lines recently told shareholders.

As airlines add flights they stretch staff, aircraft and air-traffic controllers to capacity, leaving them vulnerable to the slightest disruption. After thunderstorms triggered hundreds of flight cancellations in recent weeks, United Airlines said it might reduce flights out of its Newark, N.J. hub to create a buffer.

Airlines also reflect a broader reality: Whatever pricing power business still commands is increasingly eaten up by labor costs. Pilot shortages caused by pandemic retirements have given unions bargaining leverage, with many seeking to replicate a 34%, four-year increase Delta gave its pilots this year.

Workers are slowly recapturing more of the economic pie. In the first quarter of 2023, wages and salaries rose to 49.3% of corporate value added, higher than in 2019. Labor costs per unit of sales rose 6% in the year through the first quarter, ahead of prices, which were up 5.3% in the same period. Profits per unit of output rose just 1.6%.

The trend of wages rising faster than prices has continued in recent months. That’s welcome relief for workers but poses a set of difficult tradeoffs: Either profit margins will have to narrow further, which businesses will resist; high inflation will have to continue, which the Federal Reserve is fighting; or productivity will have to boom, of which there is no sign yet. If none of those things happen, then wageflation, like greedflation, will have to go away.



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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