Sunday, 23 November 2014

Basic maths and a big headache

A three-hour train journey to see my daughter en route to bothering clients in Scotland tomorrow leaves me with time to write, though less access to data than I need to fully explain my point. Still,  I'm grateful to Matthew Boesler (@boes_ on twitter)  for drawing my attention to the presentation on the US economy by David Altig, the Atlanta Fed's Director of Research, which he gave at Georgia State University's Economic Forecasting Conference this week (Link).

The amount and quality of research that comes out the Fed's regional offices is incredible. The whole presentation is worth looking at but I've been playing with slide 15, which shows US employment growth since June 2009 in various sectors of the economy and compares it to the wage level. It's not a surprise that the majority of the employment growth has been in lower-paid work and this is something that is as true in the UK as it is in the US. Spend much time reading Brinjolfsson and McAfee and you'll end up convinced this is a trend which can persist.

I started playing with the data behind the chart on Friday and look forward to hours of fun doing so in the next week or two.  For a really simple exercise, I looked at wage growth across the different sectors. Overall, US hourly earnings growth in October was running at 2.0% y/y, and the average hourly wage was USD 24.57, pretty close to the $24.96 earned in manufacturing, the sector with the fastest employment growth since 2009 and 4th of the 8 sectors in the chart.

At the extremes, wage growth in 'information', the top sector on this list, is 3.3%, and the wage growth in the lowest-earning sector is 3.6%. Both higher than the average. Not every sector is seeing higher than average wage growth, but they could be. The average growth of wages in the two mentioned sectors is 3.15%, a good bit lower than in either of them, simply because of one year's change in relative employment between the two sectors.

There's one immediate conclusion: Even as the overall US economy approaches full employment, that may cause more wage growth only in the (lower-paid) sectors where the labour shortages will be felt first and even then only if the effect is not simply a return of discouraged workers to the labour force.

What I really need to time to do, is to replicate these figures in the UK. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, sounded confident about a pick-up in wage growth in the press conference after the release of the latest Inflation Report. The bank expects a pick-up to around 3%, and I can only assume that they are hearing positive noises from their Agents. But if that 3% figure reflects the belief that each sector will see a 3% increase in wages, while the make-up of the labour force changes, the actual number could still be a fair bit lower. So I'll note the optimism and reserve judgement....

The implications for fiscal policy are even more disturbing. If the shift in the make-up of employment drags average wage growth below the average of each sector, it wreaks even more havoc to income tax receipts. More people are paying less tax. And the trend is not about to change. I'll leave those with a political agenda to draw their own conclusions, while I focus on what this means for inflation, interest rates and the pound...

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