Why Dismal Pay Growth May Be Here to Stay

A slump in productivity is bad news for workers' paychecks

Congress Votes to Extend Federal Funds For Highways Through July

A construction worker in Streator, Illinois.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

It's been a depressing recovery and expansion for Americans waiting for a meaningful pay raise. It may be time for U.S. workers to lower their expectations for good, if a chorus of economists including Stephen Stanley at Amherst Pierpont Securities and Ted Wieseman at Morgan Stanley are right. 

Wages have been climbing at a historically weak 2 percent pace since the end of the 2007-2009 recession, and that may be as fast as they will grow, Stanley and Wieseman suggest. Their reasoning is that the two main ingredients for long-run pay gains — productivity and inflation — haven't been increasing as quickly as they had in the past. 

A report Tuesday showed that productivity picked up just 0.3 percent in the 12 months through June.  What's more, price increases have remained tempered, with core inflation (which strips out volatile food and energy costs) slowing to an average of 1.5 percent year-on-year growth since 2009. The Fed's preferred gauge has also missed the central bank's 2 percent goal for more than three years.

"Over time, workers’ nominal pay should expand by the sum of inflation and productivity growth," Stanley said in a research note after today's release. "Unless productivity miraculously accelerates, anyone waiting for 3.5 percent wage gains is either going to be perpetually disappointed or is going to be knee-deep in an inflationary spiral by the time we get there."

The wage growth slowdown is obviously bad news for workers with stagnant paychecks — but it also has implications for monetary policy. 

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has said in the past that wages should be growing faster, even given the pace of productivity growth and 2 percent inflation. Still, she and other Fed officials have more recently stressed that a pickup in pay isn't a precondition for their first interest rate increase since 2006. 

The Fed has also been less vocal in emphasizing wages as a yardstick for labor market improvement recently. That could signal that they're coming to terms with a new reality, Stanley said. 

"We've gotten reflexively used to viewing the 2 percent trend in labor costs in the past six years as abnormally low, but is it?" Wieseman wrote in a July 31 research note. "Two percent is about where wage growth should be trending with 0 percent productivity and a 2 percent inflation target."

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