For all the emphasis on fighting inflation, Reagan officials pay little attention -- in public at any rate -- to the latest movements in wages. Yet, economists agree that a lasting slowdown in inflation depends on a slowdown in wage increases.
Labor costs form such a large proportion of total costs that firms cannot permanently hold the rate of price increases below that of wage increases.
The only senior government official who does seem to monitor wage movements closely is Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, one outside economist commented recently. Volcker's preoccupation with what happens in the real world of wage bargaining and settlement may seem at odds with his responsibility for the more esoteric world of monetary policy and financial markets. But he believes the success or failure of anti-inflationary monetary policy depends in large part on what happens to wages.
As President Reagan has pointed out, inflation has slowed dramatically while he has been in office. The consumer price index is now increasing at an annual rate of between 5 and 6 percent. Last year the CPI went up 8.9 percent. In 1980 the increase was 12.4 percent, while for three months early that year it shot up at an annual rate of 18 percent.
Much of the improvement -- particularly early on -- was due to a turnaround in some key components of consumer prices that do not depend primarily on labor costs. Energy and food costs helped send the consumer price index soaring at the end of the 1970s. The oil glut and good harvests have helped restrain it since.
The unexpected strength of the dollar on foreign exchange markets has been another factor holding down U.S. inflation. The dollar's value has increased by close to one-fourth since Reagan took office, measured against the currencies of a group of major U.S. trading partners. This rise hurts exporters, but helps hold down the prices of imports.
Sharp price declines for some commodities, such as copper, which are particularly sensitive to the state of the world economy have also contributed to the general slowdown in U.S. inflation. These sensitive prices are expected to rebound once the world-wide recession ends. Several commodities are now being produced and sold at a loss; and that clearly cannot continue over the long term. Many businesses that have fought to hold down price increases in order to hang on to their markets say they will push up their prices in an attempt to regain profit margins as soon as the market can bear it.
But Volcker and others hope that a more lasting change in inflation has occurred alongside the temporary factors. Firms have scaled back their expectations of future inflation, it seems. Meanwhile, the depth of the recession, together perhaps with evidence that inflation has slowed already, has pushed workers into accepting lower wage increases than seemed likely even a year ago.
Average hourly earnings rose by 6 percent over the year to September, after accounting for shifts by workers between high-paying and low-paying industries and changes in overtime work. In the 12 months to September 1981 the index -- which measures underlying changes in earnings -- climbed by 9.3 percent.
While the slowdown may not look large in comparison to the reduction in consumer price increases, it represents a significant shift in behavior. The 1974-75 recession -- severe as it was -- succeeded only in bringing wage inflation down from an 8.4 percent peak reached in 1975 to 7.2 percent in 1976. From then until 1981 the earnings increase crept steadily upwards: to 8 percent in 1979, 9 percent for 1980 and 9.1 percent last year.
A reduction in wage increases is two-edged: It helps pave the way for lower inflation, but also hits spending power of workers. (The recession that has brought about slower wage increases has, of course, devastated the earning power of those thrown out of work.)
In the last year, workers have been quite lucky. Despite the slowdown in wage gains, the hourly earnings index has outpaced price increases this year. But the administration claim that workers are better off than they were a year ago is still misleading. Actual earnings have been depressed even more than the hourly index shows, as shorter hours have cut into weekly earnings and layoffs have occurred, particularly among relatively high earners in manufacturing.
The average weekly wage last month was only 4.1 percent higher than in September 1981, compared to the 6 percent rise in the hourly index. In the last three months, these earnings have risen at an annual rate of only 1.4 percent.
That helps to explain why consumer spending has been so weak, even while it gives hope to those looking for a lasting slowdown in inflation.