Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the new book 'The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.'
pc2014q4
Sources: Author’s analysis; see data note below.

There’s a bit of a “Goldilocks” economy afoot right now in the United States. GDP is growing “at trend,” meaning about where we’d expect at this point in an expansion. The job market, as we learned today, is not only consistently posting good monthly numbers, but doing so at an accelerated pace. Over the past three months, employers have boosted their payrolls on net by about 340,000 jobs per month. A year ago, that figure was about 200,000.

Yes, unemployment ticked up a touch last month, from 5.6 percent to 5.7 percent, but that was due to more people coming into the labor market, a signal that some of the sideliners who’d given up the job search may like what they’re starting to see in terms of their prospects in the improving labor market. If so, that’s another good sign.

With all this good “growthy” stuff going on, you might think inflation would be accelerating as well. It’s not. Far from it, based most recently on the sharp slide in energy costs, price growth has been slowing. But even before that, inflation was subdued. If anything, price growth has been uniquely disconnected from the improvements noted above throughout this recovery.

But surely wages must be growing more quickly, what with the job market itself tightening up? Again — and here’s the point I wanted to stress today — not so, at least in nominal (not counting inflation) terms, which is what matters from the perspective of the Federal Reserve or anyone else looking to get nervous about potential overheating.

The figure above tells the story. The trend you see there is derived from a “principal components analysis” of five different wage series. You’ll find lesser econo-bloggers lazily posting one or two wage series. Yours truly gives you five — count ‘em! — summarized using a technique designed to pull out the common, underlying trend. The data note tells you which series go into the mix.

Anyway, after that big drumroll, what you see at the end of the series is not much at all in terms of acceleration. Wages/compensation are growing at about 2 percent, a rate that’s far from inflationary. Fed Chair Janet Yellen has herself said that 3.5-4 percent for nominal wage growth would be more consistent with a healthy job market.

Now, in case I’ve bummed you out with this flat-wage-growth story after all that talk about the improving job market, the fact is that real wages, adjusted for inflation, are doing much better. As I suspect you know if you’ve filled up the tank lately, even a paycheck that hasn’t grown much is stretching further these days because inflation is up less than 1 percent over the past year. Also, the improving job market has boosted weekly hours, and nominal weekly earnings are up almost 3 percent over the past year.

That translates into a real weekly paycheck that’s growing at around a 2 percent clip, its best real growth rate in about four years.

The punchline of all this noodling is as follows: We’re doing a lot better in the job market but we’re not yet at full employment, meaning we do not yet see a tight, tight matchup between the number of job seekers and jobs. Thus most workers still lack the bargaining clout they need to claim their fair share of the growth they’re helping to produce. They’ve been getting an unusually sizable break on the inflation front but that could change as energy prices eventually bounce back.

So steady as she goes, policy makers, especially at the Federal Reserve, in charting a path back to full employment. We need to get there and stay there if we’re going to nudge that wage trend up to where it belongs.

Data Note: The graph uses the first principal component of five different wage and compensation series to plot a weighted average of year-over-year wage growth.  The five series are:

–Employment cost index: hourly compensation
–Employment cost index: hourly wages
–Productivity series: hourly compensation
–Median weekly earnings: full-time workers
–Average hourly earnings: production, non-supervisory workers

All series are from the BLS. For those interested, you can download the underlying wage data from my blog.