Clearly, the pattern is one of slower job growth.
Now, if you pay attention to these numbers, you may have heard that the unemployment rate fell to 4.3 percent in May, the lowest it has been since 2001. But hold your applause, because the jobless rate fell for the wrong reason: not more people getting jobs, but more people leaving the job market (you only get counted as unemployed if you’re looking for work; if you give up the search, you’re not in the unemployment rate).
Again, that’s a noisy, monthly number, but here’s a bit of evidence that I think is pretty persuasive that the job market, while surely closing in on full employment, isn’t as tight as you might think. The next figure plots hourly earnings of the 80 percent of the workforce that’s blue-collar or nonmanagerial workers (the smoother line is a six-month moving average). I choose this group not just because its data comes out in the monthly report, but also because its wage growth is sensitive to labor-market tightness. Full employment boosts its bargaining clout.
The Great Recession (the shaded period in the figure) lastingly whacked the heck out of their wage growth, but as the job market got better, their yearly earnings growth went from 1.5 percent up to 2.5 percent. But as the job market has tightened over the past year, their wage growth stopped accelerating. A year ago, their hourly wage grew 2.3 percent. Last month, the comparable figure was 2.4 percent.
Okay, that’s a lot of numbers. What do they all mean?
For one thing, they suggest that the Federal Reserve, when it meets mid-June to decide its next interest-rate move, might want to take a break from its “normalization campaign.” Starting at the end of 2015, the Fed began to slowly raise the benchmark interest rate it controls from zero to where it is right now, targeting between 0.75 and 1 percent. In historical terms, that’s still quite low, but one interpretation of the slowing in trend in job and wage growth is that the Fed’s tapping of the growth brakes is having the intended impact. And for some groups of workers, that’s a problem.
Now, if you’re the Fed, you’re not so much focused on any particular group of workers. You’re focused on your “dual mandate” of full employment at stable price growth. So if all this labor market tightening is boosting inflation, then raise rates you must.
But that’s not the case, either. The next figure shows the Fed’s preferred inflation metric, which leaves out volatile oil and food prices (again, year-over-year growth). As you see, core inflation has been (a) missing the Fed’s 2 percent target for years on end, and (b) growing more slowly in recent months, even as the jobless rate has fallen further.
It is true that overall inflation has picked up relative to the core measure, but that’s largely about energy prices getting back to normal (gas prices are up 14 percent over the past year), and their price is set on the global stage, not by the Fed.
Put this all together and you get the following result. A year ago, inflation-adjusted hourly earnings were up 1.3 percent for blue-collar, nonmanagerial workers. Now they’re up hardly at all, just 0.2 percent. In other words, while we’re still closing in on full employment, that’s happening at a slower rate than we thought, and the benefits of growth aren’t showing up in the paychecks of less advantaged workers. For them to get ahead, we need to get to and stay at full employment.
And that means the Fed might be well advised to take a powder this month. The job market’s still tightening up, but not enough to generate anything like scary wage or price growth. Meanwhile, real wage growth isn’t what it should be, and if there’s one thing we know, it’s that a lot of working families have long been left behind amid growth. In fact, this dynamic has crept into our politics and is playing out in ways that are both divisive and destructive.
Fed chair Janet L. Yellen has an admirable career of being a straight-shooting, data-driven economist. Well, I get that the markets are expecting a rate increase, but the markets aren’t the Fed’s only, or even their main, client. That would be working America. And both they and the data are saying: Take a break, Fed. Tap not the brakes in the June meeting, and let more of the noninflationary growth reach the workers.