Workers’ Pay Globally Hasn’t Kept Up With Inflation
Decline in purchasing power could reverse this year if prices rise more slowly
Decline in purchasing power could reverse this year if prices rise more slowly
Wage growth across advanced economies is plateauing or declining from high levels. For central banks, it is good news: There are no signs of a spiral in which wages push up prices, which push up wages again. That makes it more likely inflation could decline without a significant increase in unemployment.
For workers, though, it is less positive. Wages rose faster last year than in the previous two years, but not as much as prices across major advanced economies, according to projections by the International Labour Organization. Workers’ purchasing power—their average inflation-adjusted wage—was lower last year than in 2019, before the pandemic, according to the report. So despite strong demand for workers and ultralow unemployment, labor’s share of economic output shrank in many advanced economies.
In the U.S., nominal wage growth—meaning unadjusted for inflation—has slowed sharply since the middle of last year, according to a variety of measures. Average hourly earnings for private-sector nonfarm workers rose 4.4% in the 12 months through January, down from 5.6% last March and less than the 6.4% rise in consumer prices in the year through January.
In Europe, average wage growth across six countries declined to 4.9% in December from 5.2% in November, according to a report by Ireland’s central bank and the recruitment company Indeed, which tracks advertised wages across millions of online job ads. Inflation in the eurozone ended the year at 9.2%.
In Canada, central bank chief Tiff Macklem highlighted easing wage growth to explain the bank’s recent decision to pause interest-rate increases after raising its key rate to 4.5%, the highest level in 15 years.
“Wage growth is currently running between 4% and 5% and appears to have plateaued within that range… The risk of a wage-price spiral has diminished,” Mr. Macklem said.
Economists have noted that pay growth tends to lag, not lead, inflation as workers and employers adjust pay expectations to the prices they have experienced. Thus, the recent decline in pay growth might reflect, with a lag, the fact inflation peaked around summer and fall of last year in major economies like the U.S. and eurozone and has since declined, as energy prices fell sharply and global supply-chain pressures eased.
Why, though, did wages never catch up with inflation in the first place? One reason is that wages tend to be sticky, changing relatively slowly and sluggishly—over months and years—while prices can change more rapidly. Firms might be wary of raising wages aggressively since cutting them later would be bad for morale.
Now, slowing economic growth and the threat of layoffs might be tempering workers’ demands, said Andrea Garnero, an economist with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Labor unions in Europe have grown more concerned about job security than wages, he said.
Workers’ pay demands have been reasonable in part because their incomes were supported by government aid during the pandemic and energy crisis, said Gabriel Makhlouf, governor of Ireland’s central bank. “People understand that they can make things worse if they require the wrong [pay] deal,” he said in an interview.
Crucially, the number of workers, which shrank in the first months of the pandemic, is rebounding in many advanced economies, helping to ease shortages.
Some workers who left the labor force during the pandemic are being tempted back as pandemic savings dwindle and are eroded by inflation. Almost 83% of Americans ages 25-54 are working or actively looking for work, roughly back to the pre pandemic rate, according to the U.S. Labor Department. About 86.5% of Europeans ages 25-54 have jobs or are actively searching, 1 percentage point above prepandemic levels. The U.K. stands out for a decline in its labor-force participation coupled with unusually strong wage growth, suggesting that a shortage of workers could be driving pay higher.
Immigration has also rebounded strongly in recent months, hitting record levels in Canada, Spain and Germany as some governments try to make up for shortfalls during the pandemic.
In the U.S., net international migration added more than a million people to the population in the year through mid-2022, the Census Bureau said. Migrant workers could have helped fuel January’s robust 517,000 increase in nonfarm payrolls while keeping wage inflation moderate, said Torsten Slok, chief economist at Apollo Global Management. The same forces could be at play in Europe, he said.
History suggests that workers often fail to claw back losses from high inflation. In the U.S., periods of high inflation were, in general, periods of lower real-wage growth, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. High inflation in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s led to real income losses for workers, according to the country’s central bank.
But there are reasons to think real wages might recover soon. Wage growth remains around its fastest in at least a decade across a range of advanced economies. It could stay elevated as wage bargaining proceeds.
Absent a deep recession, unemployment could stay low enough to preserve some bargaining power for workers. The labor supply is being constrained by aging populations across advanced economies and increased worker absences due to illness, often Covid-19.
And markets are betting inflation will fall rapidly this year across advanced economies. If so, it could well fall below wage growth, so real wages would rise—along with workers’ share of the economic pie.
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Many people are spending more than they think as inflation stays elevated
Many people have a gap between what they think they spend and what they actually spend. This gap has widened recently as the financial and psychological effects of higher prices further strain people’s budgets.
Elevated inflation has rippled through American’s wallets for more than a year now. Some have cut back, while others have increased their spending to keep up. Credit-card balances were staying relatively flat for a while, but have jumped higher recently.
In the fourth quarter of 2022, the average household’s credit-card balance was $9,990, up 9% from in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to WalletHub, a consumer-finance website. Meanwhile, the average credit-card interest rate rose to a record high of about 20% last week, according to Bankrate.
Financial advisers say the larger amount of credit-card debt while rates are higher is one indication that some Americans are spending more than they think they are. This type of spending can reduce people’s ability to pay for important items down the road, such as college for a child or even fund their own retirement. More immediately, it will put people in costlier debt.
“If people spend too much on credit, they could end up trapped in a cycle of debt,” said Courtney Alev, consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma.
Spending less isn’t always possible when everything from groceries to travel is generally more expensive. Still, people can find ways to cut back if they understand more about why they are overspending and take a closer look at their finances.
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Money grows much faster than most people expect because interest is earned on interest, said Michael Liersch, head of Wells Fargo & Co.’s advice and planning centre. A similar concept applies to inflation: Prices rise, and if inflation remains high, prices continue to grow on top of already-inflated prices, leaving people off guard.
“People get constantly surprised that their money isn’t going as far as they thought it would,” he said.
The cost of eating out and going for drinks continues to take Dina Lyon aback. Even though the 36-year-old married mother of one is dining out and ordering in far less than she did a year ago, some prices still give her sticker shock.
“The difference between cooking at home—about $10 for nice pasta and quick sauce from canned tomatoes—versus Italian takeout of $50 is astronomical,” said Ms. Lyon, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
People tend to underestimate their future spending in large part because they base their predictions on typical expenses that come to mind easily, said Abigail Sussman, a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
She and other researchers found that when people are coming up with predictions, they tend to think about what they usually spend money on—such as groceries, rent and gas—and base their predictions primarily on these expenses. They are less likely to consider atypical expenses, such as car repairs or birthday presents, the researchers found.
This pattern is particularly problematic when inflation is high, said Prof. Sussman. When the price of the same basket of items rises, people might not account for these price increases in their future budgets, she said.
Further, times of stress cause people to be less intentional about tracking their money, said Mr. Liersch. They might also spend more than they know they can afford to soothe feelings including anxiety and depression.
According to a recent survey by Credit Karma, 39% of Americans identify as emotional spenders (defined by the study as someone who spends money to cope with emotional highs and lows.)
You have a better chance of staying under budget if you become more aware of your spending instead of sticking your head in the sand, financial advisers said.
One thing Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, does is create a line item in his monthly budget for one-off expenses, such as an unexpected medical bill. This gives him a cushion in his budget and enables him to more fully examine how much he is spending each month, said Prof. Alter, who has studied overspending.
People might also wish to include an escalating buffer into their budgets of say, 2% to 5% a year, to account for inflation, he said.
Jay Zigmont, a financial planner in Water Valley, Miss., looks at clients’ total take-home income from the year, subtracts everything they must spend money on such as their mortgage and how much they saved. The remaining number is how much they spent on discretionary spending.
In most cases, clients are surprised they spent so much, he said.
Once people know how much they spend, Britta Koepf, a financial planner in Independence, Ohio, suggests they practice mindful spending. Before any purchase, ask yourself if you really want or need what you are buying. Frequently, the answer is yes, but sometimes waiting five seconds will prevent you from overspending, she said.
You can also practice mindfulness by delaying purchases further.
“A lot of the time, if I tell myself that I will purchase it next week, I find that I am no longer interested a week later,” she said.
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