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A NEW SURVEY SAYS Americans can expect record-low salary hikes this year. The Conference Board's recent analysis, which samples 515 mostly large companies in all major industries, found that employers are planning average pay increases of only 4% for both this year and next. That's down from 5% to 6% boosts a few years ago and would be the lowest since the board began tracking big-company salaries in 1975.

IN REALITY, Americans are likely to see the best wage improvement in years, after inflation is taken into account. From 1975-93, average wages for 90 million private-sector employees lagged behind the consumer price index by more than three percentage points, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But with inflation running at only about 2.5% so far this year, the Conference Board's 4% pay growth forecast means real wages would jump 1.5%. Americans haven't seen their purchasing power get such a boost since a 2% real-wage increase in 1986. Aaron BernsteinEDITED BY JAMES E. ELLIS AND JULIE TILSNER

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