It’s Wednesday and as usual I consider a few topics in less depth than a single blog post, as a precursor to the music segment. Yesterday’s US inflation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (June 13, 2023) – Consumer Price Index Summary – May 2023 – shows a further significant drop in the inflation rate as some of the key supply-side drivers continue to abate. All the data is pointing to the fact that the US Federal Reserve’s logic is deeply flawed and not fit for purpose. Today, I also discuss the latest data on remuneration from Australia which shows that while corporate bosses have been urging wage setting processes in Australia to suppress the growth in wages for workers, an argument also used by the RBA governor recently, the bosses themselves have been getting massive nominal salary growth and increasing their purchasing power by a mutiple of the inflation rate. Modern day capitalism.
On June 2, 2023 Australia’s minimum wage setting authority – the Fair Work Commission (FWC) issued their decision in the – Annual Wage Review 2022-23 – which provides for wage increases for the lowest-paid workers – around 0.7 per cent of employees (around 75 thousand) in Australia. In turn, around 20.5 per cent of all employees, who are on the lowest tier of their pay award (grade) receive a flow-on effect. The FWC determined that sought to protect the real living standards of the lowest-paid workers in the nation after receiving a ‘direction’ from the new Federal Labor Government to do so. While the small number of workers who actually receive the FMW were largely protected from the current inflation-erosion of their purchasing power (although not compensated for losses over the last year), the larger group of workers on statutory awards who earn the minimum award rate went backwards in real terms as a result of the decision. The major employer groups argued for very low nominal rises, while at the same, as they are enjoying booming profits. A scandalous indictment of our system.
Last Friday (June 2, 2023), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – May 2023 – which revealed that the the US labour market may be at a turning point but is certainly not contracting at a rate consistent with an imminent recession. There was a continuing weakening of net employment growth, even though the payroll and survey data were in conflict. The rate of decline though, is currently consistent with an imminent recession. We will see in the June figures whether the slowdown has become a trend.
As the inflation episode starts to abate, central bank governors have been keen to advance narratives to justify why they would continue hiking interest rates, especially when it is pretty obvious that the drivers of the inflation were mostly coming from the supply-side and suppressing aggregate spending (via the higher rates) would not be a very effective measure to deploy. This is quite apart from the debate as to the effectiveness of using interest rates to stifle spending, which is a separate discussion with no clear conclusion other than probably not. As I have noted previously, it was hard to argue that inflation was accelerating out of control when it had started to decline many months ago. So they had to come up with a different narrative – which was that while inflation was falling it was not falling quickly enough. That is the current story line the officials trot out. And that allows them to claim that if it doesn’t fall quickly then two things will be likely: (a) workers will build the higher inflation into their wage demands and set off a wage-price spiral that becomes self-fulfilling even after the supply-side factors (Covid, Ukraine, OPEC) abate, and (b) that people would start to expect higher inflation was the norm and build that into the contractual arrangements and pricing. Neither behavioural phenomenon has shown any sign of becoming entrenched, which leaves the central bank officials without a cover. And even research from central banks themselves is demonstrating that there is not ‘high inflation’ mindset taking over.
Many central bank officials have been trying all sorts of conditioning narratives to convince us that their interest rate hikes have been justified. Now they are actually defying the information presented in the official data to simply make things up. Last Wednesday (May 17, 2023), the Bank of England governor gave a speech to the British Chamber of Commerce – Getting inflation back to the 2% target − speech by Andrew Bailey. It came after the Bank raised the bank rate by a further 25 points to 4.5 per cent the week before. In that speech, he admitted inflation was declining and the main supply-side drivers were abating. But he said the rate rises were justified and unemployment had to rise because there was now persistent inflationary pressures coming from a “wage-price spiral”. The problem with this claim is that there is no data to support it.
Today (May 17, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the March-quarter 2023, which shows that the aggregate wage index rose by 0.8 per cent over the quarter (steady) and 3.7 per cent over the 12 months. The media are touting how strong the wages growth is but they should be focusing on the fact that Australia’s nominal wage growth remains well below that necessary to restore the purchasing power losses arising from price level inflation. Even though the inflation rate is falling significantly and nominal wages growth has picked up a bit, the problem still remains – real wages have now fallen for 8 consecutive quarters (2 years). Further with the gap between productivity growth and the declining real wages increasing, the massive redistribution of national income away from wages to profits continues. Further, the conduct of the RBA in this environment is contributing to the damage that workers are enduring. They continue to claim there is a threat of a wages breakout and so interest rates have to keep rising to create the necessary unemployment increase to prevent that from happening. It is just a ruse. The rising unemployment will be for nothing other than to repress real wages furthers. And meanwhile, the RBA interest rate hikes are driving up prices (for example, via the rent squeeze).
Last Friday (March 10, 2023), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – February 2023 – which revealed a slight dip in the number of net payroll jobs created and a slight increase in the unemployment rate. It is too early to say whether this marks a turning point in the US labour market after several months of interest rate increases. We will know more about that next month. January’s result was very strong, so a slight dip on that is no cause for concern. Most of the aggregates are steady and in terms of the pre-pandemic period, February’s net employment change was still relatively strong.
Real wages continued to decline in the face of a decelerating inflation rate. Overall, the US labour market is steady and doesn’t appear to be contracting fast in the face of the Federal Reserve interest rate hikes.
In the light of recent debates about whether we are back in the 1970s, where the only ostensible similarity is that inflation has accelerated over the last year or so, I dug into my data archives to remind myself of a few things. One of the problems with dealing with official data is that it gets revised from time to time and time series become discontinuous. So the labour market data for Australia tends to start in February 1978 when the Australian Bureau of Statistics moved to a monthly labour force survey. Researchers who desire to study historical data have to have been around a while and have saved their earlier data collections (such as me). But it is often impossible to match them with the newer publicly available data. You will see in what follows how that plays out. But, I was also interested to return to the past today after the ABS released their latest – Industrial Disputes, Australia – data (released March 9, 2023), which shows that disputes remain at record lows. So in what follows I show you how far removed the current situation is from what happened in the 1970s and this renders the narratives from our central bankers a pack of lies.
The RBA governor has consistently sought refuge in claims that wage pressures in Australia are building and justify the central bank rate hikes – 9 consecutive increases since May 2022. The RBA has chosen to seriously mislead the Australian public on this issue and when confronted with publicly-available data that justifies that conclusion they claim they have unpublished data that shows a wages problem that is pushing inflation. They won’t publish that data, just as they won’t tell us what their secret meetings with bank traders a few weeks were about, except we saw profit taking from the banks increase immediately after the meetings. Today (February 22, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the December-quarter, which shows that the aggregate wage index rose by 0.8 per cent over the quarter and 3.3 per cent over the 12 months. Last week, we learned that employment growth had declined for the second consecutive month, while real wages continue to contract. Says a lot about mainstream employment theory that predicts real wage cuts will increase employment. This is the seventh consecutive quarter that real wages have fallen. There can be no sustained acceleration in the inflation rate arising from wages growth under these circumstances. Further with the gap between productivity growth and the declining real wages increasing, the massive redistribution of national income away from wages to profits continues. The business sector, as a whole, thinks it is clever to always oppose wages growth and the banks love that because they can foist more debt onto households to maintain their consumption expenditure. None of this offers workers a better future. Further, the conduct of the RBA in this environment is contributing to the damage that workers are enduring. While corporations continue to gouge profits, the RBA, like the schoolyard bully, has singled out some of the most disadvantaged workers in our society (low income earners paying of housing loans) and using them in their relentless push of mainstream ideology. This is a huge problem.
Well, things are getting interesting in the US. The Federal Reserve started hiking interest rates in April 2022 and its decisions are underpinned by an theoretical framework that suggests the unemployment rate is above what it thinks is the natural rate (the rate where inflation is stable). So the rate hikes are meant to slow spending and increase the unemployment rate and cause price setters to stop accelerating prices up. Except the data isn’t obeying the theory and inflation is falling despite the rate hikes rather than because of them. This is another demonstration of how flawed the dominant mainstream economics has become. Last Friday (February 3, 2023), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – January 2023 – which revealed on-going and very robust employment growth, rising participation and falling unemployment. These are good signs for American workers. Further, as inflation is now in decline, most sectors recorded both modest nominal wages growth is some real wages growth – another virtuous sign. The latest data is certainly not consistent with the Federal Reserve type narratives. The point is that the labour market is not behaving at all like the assumed model deployed by the Federal Reserve.