Wage growth is in the pipeline

If you haven’t looked at the US wage distribution recently, you might be surprised to see nominal growth of 7.0 percent in 2019 Q3 and 6.7 percent in Q2 in first decile usual weekly earnings. My own calculations show an even stronger 8.7 percent year over year increase in October 2019. The increase in the first decile wage seems to be coming from state, local, and company increases to the minimum wage. It is also an indication that higher wages may soon be coming to the workers in the middle of the income distribution.

First, the data:

First decile wages and growth

The dark blue lines are the BLS quarterly data on first decile usual weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary earners. The light green lines (bd CPS) calculate the same series on a monthly basis.

The BLS and bd CPS series both show first decile wage growing at its strongest rate since the late 1990s. One conventional story here is that a tight labor market, as measured by a low unemployment rate, makes it harder for employers to find qualified replacements for employees who quit, which makes existing employees more likely to get raises. As a result, wage growth is usually strongest when the labor market is tight.

But there’s a catch. BLS uses the same sample to report nominal median wage growth of 3.6 percent in Q3 and 3.7 percent in Q2. BLS data on real average hourly earnings, which adjusts nominal earnings data for inflation, shows 1.2 percent real wage growth in October (nominal wage growth of 3.0 percent and inflation of 1.8 percent). This isn’t terrible, but it’s no seven percent. With the unemployment rate historically low, why isn’t median and average wage growth stronger?

Leaning on unemployment to fully explain wage growth is clearly not working. An alternative measure of whether a labor market is tight is the employment rate for people age 25-54. This measure is currently at it’s highest level since 2007 but is still the equivalent of more than a million jobs away from its late 1990s and early 2000s level. In other words, there’s evidence that the labor market is still over a million jobs away from full employment.

Maybe it’s better to ask instead why wages are growing so rapidly at the first decile and whether it means anything for wage growth more broadly. The data show that the number of full-time workers earning $400 per week or less has fallen to 7.5 million in the latest three months from 14.7 million in the same three months of 2014. The story here seems to be higher local and state minimum wages and higher company minimum wages at large employers. Several areas and employers moved the minimum wage to above $10 per hour ($400 for a 40-hour week) during the past five years.

Higher minimum wages could eventually translate into higher median wages. For example, the first decile and median wage tend to move together:

First decile and median wage growth

In the period of faster wage growth and tighter labor markets during the late 1990s, first decile wage growth accelerated and median wage growth accelerated shortly after. If employment trends continue, it seems reasonable to expect an increase in the median wage of five percent or more in 2020.

But the current period is not the late 1990s. Business fixed investment and labor productivity growth are both particularly weak now compared to then. Negative net capital investment and increasing payrolls suggest an aggregate situation akin to fewer tools per worker, which casts doubt on forecasts of sustained real wage growth.

Technical Note

Unlike the first two charts, I use some additional steps to smooth out the third chart comparing median and first decile wage growth. I calculate the wage in each month as the wage in the previous three months combined, so October 2019 is based on combined microdata from August, September, and October 2019. Additionally, I use the Census X13as program to seasonally adjust the results. The growth rate is based on this resultant seasonally-adjusted nominal wage.

In both sets of charts, I replicate the BLS process of taking a “binned median” to reduce how much the data reflect breaks around certain round numbers (like $400 per month).