Student debt explains why wage growth hasn’t caused inflation

The Fed has been raising interest rates because of concern that rising wages will lead to inflation. The problem with this argument is that while wages are rising, inflation, which is about 2%, is coming from higher world energy prices and from housing shortages, not from broadly higher demand for goods or services. Importantly, household survey data offers the following explanation for how wages could be going up without causing inflation: household investment in education is the cause of higher wages.

Perhaps the easiest way to see the relationship between household investment in education and higher wages is to compare growth in the overall median real wage to growth in the median real wage for workers in three educational subgroups (figure 1). From 2000 to October 2018 median real weekly wages increased by 3.6 percent overall, but fell by more than 1.5 percent in each educational subgroup. The median worker with a bachelor’s degree or more earns 2.4 percent less in the latest data than the group’s median worker did in 2000. For the group with a high school degree or less the median wage fell by 1.6 percent. For workers with some college but no degree or with an associate degree, the median wage fell by a whopping 7.7 percent.

Fig1

Since the three educational subgroups make up 100% of the total, the logical explanation for this outcome is an upward shift in the educational composition of the workforce. That is, workers have much more education in 2018 than they did in 2000. Since people with more education tend to earn more money, the result of a more educated workforce is a higher paid workforce. And while people are generally aware that education levels have risen in the US, they may be surprised to see the extent to which this is true over the past 20 years, or how rapidly the trend accelerated in response to the great recession.

In 2000, 40 percent of the full-time age 25-54 workforce had a high school degree or less, compared to 30.7 percent in the year ending October 2018 (figure 2a). Likewise, in 2000, 31.5 percent of the workforce had a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to 43 percent in 2018. The some college or associate degree group remained relatively stable in size, but shifted in it’s wage distribution towards lower wage jobs. By comparing how wages are distributed among those in each educational group between 2000 and the latest year of data, we can see that the jobs added in each educational group tend to be lower wage, while the jobs lost by each group tend to be higher wage (figure 2b). This suggests that education levels have risen faster than the corresponding availability of good new jobs.

Fig2

One intuitive interpretation of these results is that households, in general, have seen real wages fall during the relatively weak labor market from 2001 to present. Some households responded to the weak set of job opportunities by investing in education. These households generally received higher wages if they were able to get a degree and then translate the credential into a better job. Bringing this discussion back to the Fed, the obvious point here is that the educational investment was very expensive and so those higher wages are not likely to translate into more spending. The families that were able to make this investment have income that is less disposable because they now have student loan debt.

To clarify this point, imagine that the labor market had remained tight from 2001 to present and that we never had massive outsourcing of jobs or the great recession. Workers in this case could demand higher wages, and get them, without spending a fortune on education. When workers’ wage increases do not come with massive debt, the new wage money is much easier to spend on additional goods and services, which could drive up prices. However, if wage increases come with debt attached, as they do in this recent case, then the relationship between higher wages and higher prices breaks down. As a result, the Fed can worry less about a theoretical wage-price spiral and instead focus on the possibility of achieving full employment before the next recession.

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